Movies and movie makers generally play by a set of rules. A story unfolds and a mystery unravels, and at some point it all starts to make sense. We count on it.
“Borgman” breaks that covenant. Dutch director Alex Van Warmerdam’s film isn’t conventional in any sense of the word. A serial killer thriller, vampires and demons saga, Biblical allegory? It could be any of these, or something even more inscrutable.
Jan Bijvoet has the title role, and we meet him underground. A local priest and two toughs are stabbing stakes into the ground, rooting Camiel Borgman and his kind out from their hiding places.
Borgman makes his getaway, warns his subordinates (Van Warmerdam plays the older one, Ludwig) from their buried hideaways, they split up and Borgman stumbles off into a wealthy suburb.
A bearded hobo, he appeals to Marina (Hadewych Minis) as if they’re old friends, calling her his “nurse.” Her brutish husband (Jeroen Perceval) isn’t having it, but Marina, as if under a spell, hides and feeds Borgman and gives her access to her home, her beautiful nanny (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) and her young children.
When the adults aren’t around, Borgman enchants the kids with a weird, witchy bedtime story, “The White Child.” When adults are around, Borgman seems to fester illnesses, short tempers, personal disasters and vivid, murderous nightmares.
Borgman summons his “team,” which kills those who might interfere with his plans — a doctor, for instance, or gardener. The means of disposing of the bodies is haunting. They fill buckets with cement, stick the victims’ heads in them and sink them in a lake — floating upside down, anchored to the bottom.
The fact that a couple of Borgman’s helpers show up as greyhounds (shape shifters?) in one scene could be worth noting.
Van Warmerdam explores an odd interpersonal dynamic by stressing this family with a quietly disruptive, oddly charismatic weirdo. He makes this story utterly engrossing even as we start to wonder, deeper and deeper into the story, if the director is ever going to explain what’s going on here.
A hint — he doesn’t. Another hint, Camiel’s first name. That’s the first name of one of the seven archangels in Christian and Jewish mythology. When Borgman mutters “Jesus is a bloody bore, only interested in himself,” (in Dutch, with English subtitles) perhaps he has first-hand knowledge.
In any event, “Borgman” is a chilling, cryptic film that commands your attention even as its writer-director devotes much of his attention to keeping you from figuring it out. It says something that even though Van Warmerdam won’t follow the rules, we still want to play the game with him.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence, sexual situations
Cast: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Alex van Warmerdam
Credits: Written and directed by Alex Van Warmerdam. A Drafthouse Films release.
Running time: 1:53