Sunday, February 8, 2009

Let the Right One In

Dir. Thomas Alfredson

Viewed: From the Balcony

Sweden's moody, atmospheric to the point of Lynchian, Let the Right One In, starts off with the hushed voice of 12 year old Oskar repeating "Squeal, pig, squeal". It's a disconcerting voice and the words evoke horrible things. I doubt Oskar has ever seen Deliverance, but when we first see him in his bedroom, in his underwear, fondling a knife, our worst thoughts aren't exactly put to rest. In fact, the movie sets its tone quickly, holds its grip, and never lets you quite feel at ease until it's done. As with most of the facts in Let the Right One In, we find out the reason for Oskar's actions in reveals that are dealt out at a deliberate pace over the course of the movie. You see, Oskar isn't the most popular kid in school. In fact, he may be the least popular kid, with an especially cruel group of kids picking on him, calling him Piggy (Oskar - Oscar - Meyer - Piggy - get it?) and generally making after-school a punishing time where violence is always waiting right around the corner. Give Oskar a few more years in his drab apartment complex with his mother, let his fascinations with knives develop a bit more and you'll most likely have another Columbine on your hands. So it's with some relief that Oskar finds companionship with the mysterious new girl that moved into the apartment next door with her equally mysterious father (?).

Her name is Eli, and as Oskar is playing stab-stab with a tree in the apartment building courtyard one night she introduces herself. Since Oskar is obviously a bit of an odd duck himself, he doesn't seem to mind too much that Eli kind of smells funny and is only wearing a t-shirt and pants on a cold Swedish winter night. If she went to school, she'd probably be picked on too. She tells Oskar she's been 12 for a while now and Oskar seems to feel sorry for her when she says she doesn't get presents for her birthday, never mind that she doesn't even remember when it is. They continue to meet at night in the courtyard by the snow covered jungle gym and Oskar becomes downright smitten when Eli is able to finish a Rubix Cube overnight. Only some nights Eli seems to be feeling better than others.

When we first see Eli's "father" he's putting together a travel kit of some sort. A very ominous one with a jug, some rope, a funnel and a knife. It doesn't take long before we figure out what this gear is for as a random stranger gets tied upside down to a tree and their throat slit. Unfortunately the job is interrupted mid-drain by a couple walking their dog and the killer comes home empty handed. Eli is furious and we see the results the next time she meets with Oskar as the growling of her stomach intensifies and she looks to be on the verge of collapsing in on herself. At this point it's pretty obvious to us, not yet to Oskar, that Eli is a vampire and her hunger has gotten to the point where she has to go out herself. She ends up killing the most popular drinking buddy in the town, an act that is witnessed by the local shut-in/cat enthusiast and so begins the countdown before Eli either gets found out or will have to find a new town to feed from.

Working from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who adapted his own work for the screenplay), the movie brings the icy, snow covered small town life of Sweden to the screen in a way I've never seen before. The breath in the air and the frozen snot on the upper lip, are all lovingly tended to and give the film a rich, detailed texture. Anyone who's looked out over freshly fallen snow on a clear night knows the magic that occurs as the snow reflects the moon light (and the street lamps) and gives off an eerie, other-worldly glow -- suddenly everything is quite visible at 10 o'clock at night, and lit from a completely different perspective. The movie runs with this effect and it really is something magical. The setting also gives it a great timelessness that I'm sure will be the first thing to be stripped away in the inevitable, already in the works, American remake (I believe the movie is supposed to take place in the early 80's but there isn't much to prevent it from taking place any time in the past 50 years). But equally if not more impressive is the sound design. Each breath, every rumble in Eli's tummy and footstep packing down the snow are clearly audible and so effective in creating the unsettling vibe that carries on throughout that I immediately thought of David Lynch and how well he uses sound to create his atmospheres. Much of Oskar and Eli's dialog is delivered in the awkward mumbled words a 12 year old will often resort to, especially in regards to the fumbling attempts at romance. But the heightened sounds of the film give these words an intense clarity. And therefore the Swedish language has never sounded so bizarre as it does in Let the Right One In -- sometimes sounding like a series of clicks and purrs that again simply add to the unusual texture of the film.

The titles reference is two-fold. It's a play on the title of a Morrissey song ("Let the Right One Slip In") but it's also a reference to the age-old caveat that you must invite a vampire into your home for them to enter. I personally get a lot of enjoyment out of the different ways this movie plays with the vampire mythos. We never really witness the full extent of Eli's powers but in one pivotal scene she suddenly appears crouched outside Oskar's third story bedroom window looking for refuge, needing to be invited in. Until this point Oskar and Eli had been communicating through Morse code taps on the wall separating their bedrooms (another example where the attention to detail in the sound design really plays a pivotal role in the story). Like any 12 year old who's would-be girlfriend shows up at the bedroom window, Oskar invites her in. In a flash, she takes off her bloody clothes and hops into bed with him. Oskar doesn't look at her, he's practically frozen as she lies down behind him. All he can do is ask whether or not she would go steady with him. It's an oddly romantic scene that really gets to what the movie is all about -- it's a creepy, gentle love story between a 12 year old outcast and a stuck at 12 years old vampire.

I didn't mind that I pretty much figured out the ending long before it came, it was still pulled off better than I could have hoped. It didn't matter that the business with the bullies received the deus ex machina treatment, I held my breath along with Oskar every step of the way. The two leads, Kåre Hedebrant (Oskar) and Lina Leandersson (Eli), are so mesmerizing in their loneliness that it's a pleasure to watch their odd courtship play out. Every nuance of this relationship is achingly brought to life and it isn't until the movie is over that you realize how ridiculous it sounds that you were just moved by the romance of a 12 year old boy and a vampire.

Like any good horror or science fiction film, the world that you allow yourself to play in is used as a means for freedom and imaginative experimentation and more often than not as a metaphor to speak about timely topics in an interesting way. The vampire is such an enduring film character because it is based in romance and is so damn flexible. Vampirism is the perfect metaphor for drug addiction as in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, alcoholism as in Larry Fessenden's Habit, zenophobia as in any number of Dracula adaptations, they're the perfect outcasts and the longing and loneliness that is inherent in who they are make for a prime launching pad for any number of stories. But I don't remember that loneliness ever being handled in such a warmly sympathetic and unique way as it is in Let the Right One In. The child vampire has been handled well in Near Dark and even that Anne Rice movie, but they were always treated in an ironic way. Eli is fascinating in completely different reasons from those characters. She knows she needs help and Oskar needs help whether he knows it or not. Making Eli a vampire doesn't make her a heartless, manipulative, evil thing and it doesn't make her any less in need of love than anyone else -- in fact it makes her much more in need of it and in need of someone like Oskar who can love her despite her odd dietary conditions.

More than anything else, Let the Right One In is a uniquely crafted love story. There might be a touch more blood and creepiness in it to make it a good date movie, but if you find yourself with your significant other, seeing past the severed limbs and bonding over the unconditional love on display here, you know you've got yourself someone special.

1 comment:

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