One of my favorite non-English-language films of the year deserves not one, but TWO posts dedicated solely to it.
This time around, I want to celebrate the brilliance of its subtle construction, and how it further emphasizes the movie’s central themes.
Where else to begin, but at the beginning:
The first shot is a close-up of a seemingly-ordinary tiny bug, at whom the main character — played by Eva Melander — marvels. Initially, this creepy-crawler acts as a fitting introduction to Melander’s peaceful soul. Though their looks may scare the ignorant, they’re both undeniably kind, sensitive, and good-hearted; Melander’s carefully delicate handling of this innocent insect suggests as much.
From there, a large portion of her arc is dedicated to her gradual realization of how callously she’s actually been treated her whole life by humans. Imagine if she had simply squashed the mite because, like, ew, it’s a beastie — that’s how she’s been mistreated by homo sapiens, only because she looks different than their society’s perceived norms.
The troll who opens her eyes to this revelation — played by Eero Milonoff — basically represents members of an oppressed group who believe that justice entails the equal oppression of their oppressors. Before his arrival, she internalized the external hatred of her surroundings; instead of wrapping her head around the inconsolable fact that the system might be rigged against her, she instead convinces herself that she must deserve how the system chews her up and spits her out.
Instead of allowing her to wallow in this lack of self-worth, Milonoff compels her to explore concepts as varied as assimilation, reparations, retribution, revenge, restorative justice, forgiveness, hope, progress, the possibility of unity, and even its questionable merits.
And yet, like with many mentors, she eventually becomes privy to the fact that he doesn’t walk his talk. His words may sound idealistic, but his political fervor has led him to commit crimes that she cannot abide. In deciding whether to turn him over to the proper authorities, she must weigh fidelity to her own kind against fidelity to her own moral code. Even though he’s helped her more than humans ever have, she still feels a responsibility to stop his reign of terror, even if the only way to do so is to rely on the institutional power of her human oppressors.
Ultimately, she falls on the side of absolute punishment. Just because humans were wrong to demonize anyone different than them does not justify not being diligent in rooting out the actual demons in her own ranks, even if the root of such demonic behavior is understandable. No one should harbor blind trust for those we perceive as like us, and blind disgust of those we deem as unlike us.
When Milonoff finds himself cornered on a ship by the aforementioned authorities, he flings himself off the boat, handcuffed, plunging into the unpredictable abyss of the pitch-black raging ocean. Instead of being taken literally captive by his longtime metaphorical captors, he decides that he’s better off braving the waves than being in the hands of a species who’ve brutalized him for so long. This choices echoes Killmonger’s last line in this year’s Black Panther, which delves into similar themes: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
As much as we may want to take her betrayal of him as a sign of the attainability of peaceful coexistence, Milonoff’s departure leaves Melander alone once more. She removes herself from society, living in miserable destitution.
Months later, she receives a package in the mail: her child (in Border‘s supernatural mythology, male trolls are the ones who birth offspring). Her baby-daddy clearly survived, and based on the postcard, he found the mysterious group of activist trolls trolling the Finnish countryside discussed earlier in the film. Will she join them? The prospect definitely adds color to her muted face, but do they share his militant rage? Is rejecting such violence more important than finding a community for her new family? Would she be able to finally find a home amongst her own people, even if their approach to life is so antithetical to her own spiritual nature? Or maybe she can redirect their anger into forging a more productive relationship with man-and-womankind?
And how do these questions change in the face of the new life in her hands? Will she raise a more humane sort of troll, capable of living happily amongst those who once hated them, without letting their hate turn into self-hatred? Or is isolation the only path to peace? What happens when her grown-up toddler wants to leave the nest? One troll cannot possibly change how the entire planet will handle the fruit of her labor. And does she want to deprive this innocent soul of the sort of companionship she could not foster for herself? But if they refuse to denounce Milonoff’s rhetoric, that’s no environment for a kid to be brought up in…
Before answering these unanswerable questions, she must first take care of this crying infant. Only one thing quiets this newborn: eating the bug from the very first shot of the movie. This slyly clever bookend brings up even more questions as the credits roll:
Is it animal nature to eat each other? To divide and conquer? Will it always be us vs. them, and not all of us can survive? And if we don’t claw our way to the top of the food chain, are we more likely to be culinary fodder for others? Is life truly zero-sum?
Border is a testament to how thoughtfully-calibrated bookends can communicate just as much as the cinematic books themselves.