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.