Friday, March 4, 2011

Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In is an eerie, moody vampire film, the primary innovation of which is to make vampirism a metaphor for the isolation and bottled-up rage of a friendless child's sad existence. Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a tormented young boy who is continually bullied at school, who's tortured and insulted and beaten by kids who call him "piggy" and threaten him. The first words of the film, said by an offscreen Oskar, his reflection hazy and ghostly in his bedroom window, are "squeal like a pig," his nighttime repetition of his bullies' daytime taunts. Oskar goes home at night and imagines getting back at the bullies who hurt him, as he fondles a knife, lying in bed in his underwear. He spends many nights outside, too, in his apartment building's courtyard, stabbing a tree while repeating variations on "squeal like a pig" over and over again, fantasizing about violent revenge. Oskar is mostly ignored at home by a divorced mom who seems too wrapped up in her own problems to care what her son is doing in his room or when he walks out alone into the cold night, and when he does see his dad, it seems like a vacation, a time for fun and games rather than anything serious. In short, Oskar seems primed to explode, a child who's mostly left to simmer in isolation, developing his violent impulses, ignored by everyone who should care — true to form, his teachers, who never took note of his plight, only become interested when he finally strikes back against one of his tormenters. It's easy to imagine Oskar as one of those lost souls who eventually snaps and enacts his revenge in some public and bloody way.

Instead, he becomes fascinated with Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl who moves in next door to Oskar with her elderly guardian Håkan (Per Ragnar). Eli becomes Oskar's friend and confidant, his only companion during his formerly lonely nights. She tells him that the first words she heard him say were "squeal like a pig," which was also the audience's introduction to Oskar. Eli understands Oskar's feelings, because like him she's an outcast, a freak, and like him she's seized by violent impulses, although in her case she doesn't have much of a choice. She's a vampire, traveling around with her companion Håkan, who poses as her father but has a much more ambiguous relationship to her. Håkan kills for Eli, stalking strangers and funneling their blood into a bucket for the vampire girl. He seems to have been at this for a while, based on his kit of well-used equipment and his routine approach to these expeditions, but in fact he's a fairly inept killer, as though with age he's lost his skill.

The film's first murder shows Håkan randomly accosting a passerby in a park, and what's shocking about it is how public it seems, not at all remote from people, with the lights of passing cars on an obviously major road fairly nearby. Director Tomas Alfredson emphasizes the sense of routine in this murder, the mundane details, the sense of a man going through familiar routines, enacting a set of actions and motions that he's gone through countless times before. He strings up his victim from a tree, arranges a bucket and funnel beneath the man's head, and cuts his throat to unleash a stream of blood, making a plastic pinging noise as it drops into the bucket. Alfredson stages this sequence mostly in a static medium shot, cleverly teasing the audience about the amount of gore they're about to see, then finally withholding the image of the neck-slicing altogether, instead suggesting the horror of this moment through the sound of the blood loudly rushing into the bucket. The murder doesn't go smoothly, however, as a dog breaks away from its nearby owners to watch the murder, standing alertly a few feet from Håkan, its fur white like the snow, visually evoking unstained purity in contrast to the blood rushing from the dead man into a red-stained bucket.

Alfredson stages several similarly striking horror set pieces, but Håkan's second — and even more badly botched — attempt at gathering blood for Eli is perhaps the most powerful. The sequence is broken up by flashes of dark humor and surprising tension, and capped with an absolutely harrowing moment when Håkan realizes he's about to be caught. What's interesting about the film is that Alfredson consistently places the audience's sympathies with the killers and the vampire: the tension builds in this scene over whether Håkan is going to get caught or not, as he's cornered with several people getting closer to discovering him. This tendency is even more pronounced when it comes to Oskar and Eli. The multiple scenes of Oskar being bullied and tormented by kids at school make him a victim in the audience's eyes, and we root for him to strike back, to get his revenge, even as we know that he's nursing a violent streak that could make the moment when he finally snaps truly horrible.

The development of a friendship between Oskar and Eli is tender and moving: Oskar is a boy without friends, and he finds a connection with Eli such as he's never had with anyone before. He glides through his own home without getting much attention from his mom — there's a single scene that suggests some warmth between mother and child, but it's the exception — and no one speaks to him at school except to mock him and threaten him with beatings. His almost immediate comfort with Eli, built on their sarcastic banter during their first meeting, and intensified by the private intimacy of tapping out Morse code signals to each other on their adjoining bedroom walls, makes this a truly special relationship for the lonely Oskar. In a way, Eli is like his sinister imaginary friend, a fantasy girlfriend who can magically appear outside his window, who's strong and fearless, who can help him get the revenge he wants, but more than that who will keep him company, who isn't put off by his strangeness or isolation.

In fact, though this burgeoning relationship is touching, there is a continual sinister undercurrent to it all, a suspicion that Eli might see a certain dark potential in Oskar. After all, the first words she heard him say, the words that might have drawn her to him, were "squeal like a pig," as he stabbed a tree, practicing his revenge like a miniature Travis Bickle. The question left lingering at the end of the film is what's next for these characters: is Oskar becoming the next Håkan, a human guardian and killer for his beloved vampire friend? Is this tender relationship simply Eli's form of seduction? And why is it so satisfying to see the bullies revenged at the film's startling climax? The film has some surprising similarities to Gus Van Sant's Elephant in its poetic observation of alienation at school and at home, and it similarly raises questions about root causes and hidden evils. A barely developed subtext about the death penalty drifts through the film, as several characters discuss whether it is ethical to punish criminals with death, and Alfredson seems to be questioning, in subtle ways, the willingness of movie audiences to go along with gory revenge scenarios and even to root for the killer. Let the Right One In complicates that audience identification by making most of the vampire's victims sympathetic, and by lingering particularly with the aftereffects of violence on one man, who's devastated and ultimately destroyed by his grief. The film doesn't flinch away from that very human grief, even as it focuses on the confused feelings of childhood and the alienation that might drive a victimized, bullied kid to lash out violently and angrily at the world around him, dreaming of the power of the vampire, the power to kill and get revenge.


Sam Juliano said...

"The film has some surprising similarities to Gus Van Sant's Elephant in its poetic observation of alienation at school and at home, and it similarly raises questions about root causes and hidden evils."

I have never thought to make that correlation Ed, but I must say I like it quite a bit! In any case LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is an elegant and pictorially arresting film with lucid enough metaphorical underpinnings and subtle erotic subtext. Some bloggers have proclaimed the American re-make as superior, but although I'll concede it was scene for scene an admirable replication, the point is is IS a replication, and the original film forged the crafsmanship and style that made the re-make possible. Winter and snow has seldom been as intoxicating, and there's a strand weeding here of lyricism and terror, all brought together by the humanity of the characters. The film's most startling thematic set piece is the swimming pool sequence, but others like the scaling of a hospital wall and the killing in the park bring to the fold the story's indeptedness to vampire and werewolf sources. But in every sense this wholly original and often exhilarating film beats its own drum.

Again, a beautifully written essay.

Ed Howard said...

Yes, it's a very well-made, beautifully shot film, very suggestive and interesting. I've heard the chatter about the American remake being even better, but haven't gotten around to seeing it yet. It may well be better, but I'm more than a little suspicious of these instant remakes that exist for no other reason than the laziness and disinterest of American audiences when confronted with subtitles - the original film is a gory, enthralling vampire movie, creepy and satisfying, and I don't see why it shouldn't have appealed to mass audiences as is. I'm reminded of Christopher Nolan's remake of the fine thriller Insomnia into a pointless vehicle for Al Pacino and Robin Williams; in that case, the remake wasn't bad per se, it just had no real reason for existing and added nothing to its source.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Let Me In is so much more than that, Ed. I had the same reservations you're articulating about the American remake; however, I have to say, Matt Reeves' version is so much more than just a lazy remake for lazy Americans that can't handle subtitles.

Reeves even states that his film is more interested in the coming of age aspect of the Oskar character, so his film focuses more on his relationship with the Eli character as a lonely kid looking for a friend. It's true that they've neutered a lot of the sexual ambiguity, but it would have felt weird in his version seeing that story elements being crammed in. In fact, it's actually the very reason the so-called "remake" or "re-imagining" works because it definitely is Reeves' version of the source material...source material that Alfredson even took liberties with.

I appreciated the economy of Let Me In as subsequent viewings of Let the Right One In have made me realize that the film is just a tad too long; plus, as a horror fan, I appreciated that Reeves' film was definitely more of a horror movie.

Okay, all that to say: I really, really, really like Let the Right One In. I just hope that others will get past their misgivings (the very misgivings I had) prior to seeing the remake because I really loved the "remake." It's its own entity; both films exist successfully on their own.

Oh, and great essay! Hehe. Sorry for the rant!

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, I'm glad to hear you say that the Reeves film is interesting in its own right, and I do plan on checking it out eventually. I'm sure I'll be writing about it once I get around to it.

Sam Juliano said...

I think where the American re-make fails to match the original most glaringly is the inability to replicate the unsettling atmospherics and to impart the Swedish's film's profound and fascinating examination of the central relationship. It's one thing to encore the narrative and the celebrated set pieces, but quite another to the nuances and underling eeriness that made the themes in the first film far more emotionally resonant.

The American film is solid enough, but wildly overrated.

Leroysghost said...

this is going to be a little dashed off and rambling but hopefully it will make sense.

to me the most truthful and beautiful part of the film (and what's not made clear in the essay) is its ambiguity.

the erotic underpinnings of standing half naked in front of a cold window saying "squeal like a pig". making the bully characters three dimensional and a little sympathetic. allowing the bullying to be awful and humiliating but also thrilling and then replicating the same relationship dynamic (in a way) with a beautiful but dangerous, controlling and all powerful (but seemingly still vulnerable) boy love interest.

why is Håkan so bad at his job? is he just your usual sad sack NAMBLA type? or does he have child-like sensibilities and competence because he is a child, having been seduced by Eli at a similar age as Oskar?

these questions are unanswered and cast a shadow on Eli and Oskar, making his intentions with Oskar less pure (and more vampiric). Eli might love Oskar, but he also may have loved Håkan at one point.

Anonymous said...

Hated the remake: really clumsy story-telling plus fake snow and terrible CGI. Worse was the lack of any kind of connection between the two main characters - they each had little depth of their own, so not a shock. Felt like I was watching a community theatre production, maybe good intentions but buried under mediocrity at every turn. Skip it and be happy with Alfredson's film.

Craig said...

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by Let Me In, Ed. I liked both pictures about evenly. Let the Right One In has the advantage of being the original; Let Me In treads mostly familiar ground but earns bonus points by showing Matt Reeves actually knows what to do with a camera. I thought the former had more dark poetry and lyricism, while the latter had the stronger narrative, enhanced by a new set-piece in the middle of the film that's (heh-heh) killer. I also felt, in Let Me In, a clearer indication of how the main character is going to grow up and become another old man forced to feed this girl. Maybe that's because this was the second go-round for me, but I also think it may have been partly due to Richard Jenkins's typically exceptional performance.

Ed Howard said...

Makes perfect sense, Leroy. You're right, the film's ambiguity adds a great deal to this story, especially when it comes to the end and one is simply left to wonder how we're supposed to feel about all this, and what could possibly be next for these characters.

Interesting thoughts about Hakan, too. I had thought he was slipping with age, assuming that he must've been doing this for a long time and was just getting sloppy. Maybe you're right, though, and there's more to it than that.

All this debate about Let Me In is pushing me towards seeing it now just so I can see which side I land on. Seems to be one that inspires some totally opposite reactions.

Pierre de Plume said...

"when [Oskar] does see his dad, it seems like a vacation, a time for fun and games rather than anything serious."

Yes -- I also think the scenes with the dad say so much and with an economy of dialogue. Clearly, the dad is a jock type who never grew up to accept the responsibility of fatherhood. The effect of this on Oskar is made very clear.

The remake is worth seeing, but I prefer the original despite certain superiorities of the remake. The remake relies too heavily on craft and by-the-numbers effects. Also, the 2 central characters of the remake weren't cast well, though the bullies were better presented and Jenkins, of course, of good.

When I first saw this film I thought to myself (jokingly), whoever was involved with this film should be arrested -- or at least detained for questioning!

Great review!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Pierre. I do think those scenes with Oskar's dad show how good the film is at economical storytelling; it's not made explicit in any way, but those brief scenes do add to the portrait of Oskar's life and why he is the way he is. Even the good things, like those scenes with his dad, show that he's got no one to really confide in, since he doesn't do or say anything serious with his dad, who just wants to play. He's the "cool dad" who still acts like a kid himself.

Shubhajit said...

Amazing review of a film that I really loved.

Yes, both teenage alienation and punishment play strong roles in the film, withe the burgeoning friendship of the two lonely, misunderstood kids providing the emotional backbone of the story.

The film also provided a fascinating deconstruction of the vampire sub-genre of horror films, and will act as a pioneer for horror movie aficionados and a yardstick to be measured by for filmmakers wishing to dabble in this sub-genre.

I especially loved the swimming pool scene that you've given special mention to, along with the terrific final scene that revealed a lot without explicitly saying much. In fact that last scene ensured that everything we saw till then made complete sense.

Though people were very skeptical of the film's American remake, I heard that Let Me In has turned out to be reasonably good, so I guess I should try that as well.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Shubhajit. You're right, this film will definitely be considered a new classic of the vampire genre, and will no doubt long be remembered as a film that dared to do something new and interesting with this horror subgenre.