Some of the images from the Dutch film Borgman are things you can’t unsee. A wild-haired vagrant crouching naked above a sleeping woman. Bodies floating upside-down underwater, their heads encased in cement-filled planters. A short-haired vagrant crouching naked above a sleeping woman. (Maybe it’s his version of a nightcap.)
By the time the thriller ends, however, you’ll be wishing for more of the freakish visuals that reside in writer-director Alex van Warmerdam’s brain. Borgman is creepy, but not quite creepy enough. It’s thoroughly intriguing, if only because its story is so weird—but the similarly bizarre characters seem to lack motivation. The opening quote that serves as a clue will likely have disappeared from your mind by the time the credits roll. Unless, of course, you’d been taking notes. (Anyone else?)
When a priest celebrates Mass and then grabs his double-barrel shotgun to hunt for someone in an underground lair, that may also be a clue, but the scene is short and plays in the first few minutes. Soon after, we meet Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), one of the men living beneath the earth. He escapes through a tunnel system and alerts two others, Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere) and Ludwig (director van Warmerdam). Borgman is the head of the group, which includes two women who are introduced later on.
Borgman, now calling himself “Anton,” walks to an affluent nearby neighborhood and begins knocking on doors, asking if he can take a bath. At one home, Borgman presses a stressed-out executive named Richard (Jeroen Perceval), claiming he knows Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), until Richard nearly beats him to death. But now, the essentially homeless man has introduced doubt into Richard’s mind and guilt into Marina’s conscience. When Richard’s at work, Marina grants Borgman the bath and sets him up in a finished shed, telling him to stay out of sight of her husband, three children, and the nanny, Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen).
The direction in which Borgman proceeds from here is pure Spoilerville, though it’s not giving too much away to mention humans who appear to be able to morph into dogs, a common scar on some characters’ backs, and a Dark Arts semester’s worth of poisons and enchantments. Near the end, Borgman and his crew put on a completely confounding short play on a stage they built in the family’s vast backyard. The only aspect tethering it to the rest of the film is mysteriousness—only this time it’s more silly than spooky.
That Borgman turns out to be significantly more understated than its trailers suggest is ultimately a strength, and a testament to van Warmerdam’s restraint in shaping an otherworldly story that could have gone the way of so many recent found footage/exorcism/boogeymen films that have lived a few weeks in theaters only to be forgotten. None of the actors overplay their parts—though Minis might put on her “oh gosh!” face a little too often, and it would have been smarter for the casting director not to have gone with a spooky little blonde as the youngest daughter, unless the homage to Poltergeist is intentional. Borgman may take you some time to piece together, if you’re even able to piece it together at all. But a fresh voice is in the genre was desperately needed—and, well, he’s here.