On our way in to Let the Right One In, I turned to a friend who had inquired about the movie's running time and said, "It's gotta be under two hours, it's a genre picture."
Boy, how wrong was I! No, the movie didn't exceed the expected running time (it's 114 minutes), but the other part. Calling Let the Right One In a genre picture is like saying Moby Dick was just another whale or World War II was merely a skirmish. There are average vampire movies, unexpectedly good vampire movies, and then there is Let the Right One In.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel), this Swedish film is an emotional bubbler that starts off in the quietest of valleys and eventually works its way to some surprisingly devastating heights. The movie focuses on Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a sombre 12-year-old from a split home. Oskar is bullied at school, and the resulting social and emotional withdrawal has inspired a morbid streak in the boy. He clips stories about violent crimes from the newspaper and commits their grisly details to memory. It's a bit of vicarious living, the real violence fueling the revenge fantasies where Oskar sees himself standing up to his oppressors.
The crimes start getting closer to home after a boy is found in a forest two subway stops away, strung up and in the midst of being bled. This gruesome incident just so happens to correspond with new neighbors moving in next door to Oskar and his mother. This includes Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl Oskar's age, and he meets her in the courtyard of their building in the late evening when he thinks he is alone. The two tweens are initially standoffish with one another, but when Oskar shares his Rubik's Cube with Eli and the girl manages to solve the puzzle, they start to get closer. They become friends and begin to share secrets. Oskar opens up about the bullying, and Eli gives him the lowdown on her vampirism.
Much has been said about the romantic elements of Let the Right One In, and it has been described as an adolescent love story. I think this is a little off the mark. It's more about friendship amongst two lost children who are too young to even know what physical love entails. Eli's age is indeterminate--she describes herself as "twelve, more or less"--but her development was arrested before her body changed, and being a vampire has only served to distance her further from adulthood. She initially doesn't even want to get close to Oskar because her bloodlust is so difficult to control. She has to have a servant--her own personal Renfield--gather her food for her lest the hunger overtake her and she expose herself. There are also identity complications. Does she even identify herself as a girl? It requires someone like Oskar, a boy still naive about relationship politics and sexuality, to fully accept her; in turn, he needs someone like Eli who understands brutality to help him see alternatives to his own predicament.
The world that Lindqvist and Alfredson create for their story is rather harsh. Real connections between people are hard to find and either seem hopelessly banal, like the drinking buddies who end up providing the occasional main course for Eli, or are vaguely creepy and difficult to fathom, like the quiet guest welcomed by Oskar's father. (Methinks daddy left mommy for another daddy.) For as vicious and bloody as Eli's feedings can be, she at least can blame it on a biological imperative; the sadistic bully (Patrik Rydmark) who regularly tortures Oskar has no such excuse, and thus he comes off as more of an abomination than the vampire. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema photographs the cruelty with a cold detachment, matching the inhumanity to the icy winter landscapes. His camera moves languidly, observing but never prodding, only moving in close to capture moments of vulnerability, the facial expressions that Oskar doesn't want the others to see and the intimacy he shares with Eli.
The camerawork also adds to the mystery. Shadows hide objects and people until the exact moments we need to see them, allowing for the scenes that are intentionally shocking to inspire the proper scares. There is a lot of mystery to be explored in Let the Right One In, actually, a lot of story points to be pondered and argued over. Eli's origins are fuzzy, to say the least, and Alfredson doesn't hit us over the head with "rules" for bloodsucking like so many other modern vampire movies do. He is more interested in horror that provokes with what it doesn't show, scaring us with suggestion rather than explicit action. In fact, the only times when Let the Right One In doesn't work as well as it should is when Alfredson shows too much, such as the incongruous attack of the CGI cats. Don't overload it when you can get by with less.
This seems to be the motto for the acting, too, and Alfredson takes full advantage of his stars' first-timer status. Both Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson take full charge of the screen, and it's hard to believe they have no other credits on their resume. Hedebrant is a blank slate taking in the world, while Leandersson carries the weight of her curse while also exhibiting the openness of an explorer. Both of them understand the old saying that most of acting is reacting. They don't just observe, but they let what they see affect them, giving back as much as they get. Their performances give Let the Right One In true heart, something beyond the fangs and wooden stakes that normally define the genre. With the film adaptation of Twilight only a few weeks away, I feel it's going to have a lot to live up to in order to make a claim as the vampire story with a difference. From what I know of that franchise, its main conceit is using very traditional soap opera tropes, creating a Dark Shadows for the Disney Channel generation. Which, I suppose, is fine if that's what you're after, but if you want something truly different that will really get under your skin, Let the Right One In.