★ / ★★★★
Hunted by a priest and two men, Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) escapes from his underground home and ends up knocking on a wealthy family’s door. He asks if it would be possible for him to take a bath but he is turned down without a moment’s thought. Insisting that he be let inside, Richard (Jeroen Perceval) goes on a violent rampage and almost beats the stranger to death. Guilt-ridden due to her husband’s behavior, Marina (Hadewych Minis) allows Borgman to take refuge in their summerhouse until he recovers. Soon, however, the vagabond is in the children’s room and telling a captivating lore.
Written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam, “Borgman” is supposed to be a mystery-thriller with comedic elements but the experience of sitting through it comes pretty close to watching paint dry. No tension is injected into the veins of its story and so even though bizarre occurrences unfold with a rhythmic pace, I caught myself feeling passive toward the charade. I felt nothing toward the violence and deaths and even less when would-be ironic touches migrate front and center.
Part of the problem is a lack of an identifiable and sympathetic character. The husband and wife are caricatures of affluent adults without problems worth giving a hoot about. Their children are bland and boring; take them out of the picture and the final product would have been the same, more or less. The nanny (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) could have provided an outsider’s perspective but she, too, blends in the background during the second half. Why should we care about the potential victims when they fail to bring anything to the table? How are they different from characters in horror films whose sole purpose is to appear on screen just so the audience can see what happens to them?
There are mythical elements in the film that suggest Borgman and his crew are no ordinary human beings. There is implication that two in the group have the ability to transmogrify into canines. One can deduct that Borgman can control minds; he certainly has the ability to influence a person’s dreams. These are creepy elements but they are not utilized in such a way that grabs the viewer.
Perhaps the writer-director’s goal is to create an understated psychological mystery—so understated that it can be argued that the film is also a drama, a critique of a family that can have anything they want and yet they are neither living it up nor are they truly happy. But the picture is not written in such a way that the characters are rich with personalities, thoughts, and dimension. They are puppets—to be controlled to react, sometimes in the most absurd manner, for sake of plot. For instance, Marina does not think twice after she sends a complete stranger to the house where her daughter is sleeping.
“Borgman” is a jigsaw puzzle but with half of the pieces missing. Thus, when one thinks that all of the pieces are in their rightful place, the rest must be imagined. It is a competently made picture: it is well-shot, the performers deliver what they are required, and it asks the audience to participate. But it is not a good thriller. Composed only of equally interesting exposition and rising action, one gets duped into staying with it for two hours for there is a threat possibly worth exploring but, alas, no punch.