One of the surprises in the main competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is Borgman, a Dutch thriller directed by Alex van Warmerdam. Set in the Netherlands, the film focuses on an enigmatic character Borgman, played with subdued menace by Belgian actor Jan Bijvoet, whose bizarre motivations propel this unsettling experience. Reminiscent of such films like Ben Wheatley‘s Kill List, Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games and cult hit The Wicker Man, the drama slowly creeps under your skin with an unsuspecting dose of malice. Equal parts mystery and dark satire, Borgman is an original take on an abstract horror premise that never fully appears to be what you might expect it to be.
After an ominous opening quote suggesting that a demonic presence is constantly gathering forces, the film opens with three armed men, including a shotgun-wielding priest hunting down their unsuspecting prey. Their target is the disheveled, homeless looking Borgman, who has been hiding in a makeshift dirt pit underneath the forest floor. After narrowly escaping the hunting party and warning several other hermits living in similar holes in the ground, Borgman heads into civilization to find a route of escape.
He comes upon a massive modern day villa, knocks on the door and asks if he can have a shower before moving on with his business. Richard (Jeroen Perceval), a young and successful TV producer, outright refuses Borgman’s request before being antagonized by the mystery man. This infuriates Richard, leading him to brutally pummel Borgman in front of his home, as his shocked wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) watches in horror.
This encounter serves as the catalyst for Borgman to target the family for his secret ulterior motives. Marina, feeling guilty about what she witnessed, decides to nurse him back to health in their nearby garden shed, lying to her husband and three children in the process. This decision to be complicit in Borgman’s request seems at odds with what a rational person would do, yet there is something subversive about the manner in which he carries himself that allows him to manipulate his target. As more is revealed, more questions arise, leaving the audience in a near constant state of suspense as to what is really going on. This leads to some wholly astonishing scenes as Borgman stalks the family in their sleep and seemingly begins to brainwash them one by one.
While the initial premise starts off extremely strong, the denouement builds rather slowly in the hopes of an extremely shocking climax that never fully arrives. The film also comes off a bit one-note, as the game of cat and mouse between the family and Borgman continues to repeat itself. Still, there is no denying the subtle chiller effect of what unfolds, as Borgman gathers his followers for a ritual to take place at the family’s home. The mystery behind Borgman’s motivation is what compels the audience to stay glued, even if all the answers are never fully explained by the end. Despite these few flaws, Borgman is a totally original concept that fans of a good psychological thriller will be sure to relish.