‘Borgman’ eerily intrigues, but fails to leave a lasting impression

Written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam
Netherlands/Belgium/Denmark, 2013

An odd and malevolent spell is cast over complacent suburban life in Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam’s latest. Borgman is a home invasion thriller about a bearded vagrant who takes on the mold of evil incarnate, with plans of invoking pitiless ruin upon a family of five who find themselves embedded in his cross-hairs. With a descriptor like ‘home invasion thriller,’ one might instantly refer to images of forced entry and stock brutality; the subversion and style seen here is the opposite, however, as the film develops slowly with its own signature and literal brand of poison and decay which spill out with mixed results. With its opening upside-down title card which quickly shapes itself into legibility, Borgman almost immediately announces itself as an unforgiving and lopsided affair. An ominous quote reading, “And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks,” precedes a smash cut close-up of a barking dog, both dual signifiers of the calibrated menace sprinkled all throughout the film.

We come to meet Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), or so he calls himself, as he’s being hunted for reasons unknown by a group of men armed with weapons and scouring the forest for his whereabouts. Borgman resides in a shadowy underground bunker, and we immediately get the sense that this isn’t the first time someone has had their sights on killing him. This near-wordless opening sequence is arresting and carries with it a momentum that is never fully replicated throughout the rest of the film. After eluding the hunters in the opening scene, Borgman finds himself looking for shelter in an upscale neighborhood where he eventually arrives at the doorstep of the volatile Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and his wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis). After receiving a serious beating from Richard, Marina secretly invites Borgman to stay in the family’s guest house, a gesture that solidifies the destruction of the family unit.


Borgman eventually unearths two other cohorts who aid him in taking over the household. The gardener and his wife are eventually killed so that Borgman can act as a substitute, a nanny is seduced, emaciated dogs roam through the house at night, and, on occasion, Borgman crouches over Marina as she sleeps and transfers nightmares into her subconscious mind. The narrative is fueled off of these bizarre and unpredictable spells that only shock and intrigue for so long. There’s a mythic and fable-like quality to the film, personified through the shape-shifting evil that roams throughout every inch of the household. What specific entity Borgman represents is wisely never made clear, leaving room for us to fill in the blanks, but van Warmerdam’s cyclical structure of mixing black humor (heads being buried in concrete is a nice touch) and cerebral horror is a combination that feels belabored as the film reaches the inevitabilities of its third act.

Borgman aims to embody a bottomless tide of meanings and symbols mostly tied to class commentary and the unpredictable and cruel nature of evil. In what slowly adds up to yet another art-house exercise more fascinated by its own formation than its end game, Borgman finds itself hamstrung by its inability to articulate anything beyond its rudimentary display of upper-class angst. More taxing than surreal, and more tedious than horrifying, Borgman is a Dutch import that features two solid performances from Bijvoet and Minis, but one that ultimately fails to compel beyond its surface schematics.

— Ty Landis

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