Saturday, March 14, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Let The Right One In (2008)

The vampire coming-of-age movie Let The Right One In (2008) begins and ends with snow. Incessant, bleak, snow. Falling against a backdrop of impenetrable night.

At first blush, the snow seems beautiful, but on closer reckoning you see it for what it is: a blanket of cold despair, covering everything, raining down. Endlessly down.
Welcome to Oskar's (Kåre Hedebrant) universe. He's a twelve-year old boy living in a depressing apartment complex in blue collar Stockholm. Oskar's skin complexion is as alabaster white as the never ending snow, and his life is as relentlessly bleak, his chilly personality as mysteriously opaque.

Oskar's mother doesn't want him around, at least not when something good is playing on TV. And Oskar lives away from his father, who drinks too much...and may prefer to be with his gay lover than with his only son.

Sensitive and highly intelligent, Oskar misses his Dad terribly, something we realize when the boy momentarily grasps his father's jacket and inhales his dad's scent as though it's some long lost treasure, a nostalgic remembrance of better times.

At school, Oskar's
classroom lessons seem to dwell on the dark side. A policeman lectures to the class about drugs, but the officer lingers lasciviously on murder, as though it something tantalizing and romantic.

Even more troubling, a group of pre-adolescent thugs make Oskar's life a perpetual misery, bullying him every day and making him "squeal like a pig." The bullying isn't typical playground behavior crosses the line into real violence and sadism. Oskar keeps a knife on hand for self-defense, but so far has not been able to "hit back," to retaliate.

Oskar copes with his lot the best he can. He "reads a lot" and maintains a thick scrapbook of true crime incidents. "A senseless massacre in Beirut," and "No Survivors in Arab Massacre" are the headlines that have captured his attention and found favor amongst his mementos.

A mysterious figure, Eli (Lina Leandersson) also captures his attention.

She's another 12-year old (or thereabouts...), and she appears in Oskar's snowy apartment courtyard one night, atop a jungle jim as though some delicate bird of prey. Although Eli informs Oskar that she is not actually a girl at all, and that they can't be friends, a close relationship ensues. Eli urges Oskar to fight back against his tormentors at school, and Oskar accepts Eli for who she is.

And who she is, or who she happens to a vampire. Oskar processes and accepts this fact without question, without even blinking. In a world of divorce, loneliness, bullies, massacres and murder, why shouldn't there be vampires too?
Let the Right One In is a genre movie by way of Ingmar Bergman. It's a contemplative, deliberately-paced meditation on loneliness, adolescence, friendship and adulthood. In terms of approach, the film by director Tomas Alfredson de-romanticizes the vampire genre to an extreme degree, one not seen, perhaps, since George A. Romero's Martin in 1976.

The murders in the film are messy and ugly as the rest of Oskar's world. Eli laps blood up hungrily off a dirty floor at one point, and her "guardian" (a possible pedophile...) attempts one botched murder after another to procure her the nourishment she requires nightly. When he fails, he disfigures himself with acid so he can't be traced back to Eli.

And now and then, when we catch random glimpses of Eli, she appears either physically mutilated, or extremely old.

Ugliness and more ugliness...

Oskar and Eli are two lost souls, alienated from their society, who find each other and help each other get through the harshness of life the best they can. So when Eli states "I must be gone and live, or stay and die," some part of Oskar sympathizes with her declaration. He knows that he can't remain in gloomy Stockholm because the oppressive snow, cold, and empty emotional life modeled by his unhappy parents will smother and kill him as surely as will the "dead" adult society which heartlessly stalks and hunts Eli, the unacceptable predator in its midst.

The choice is simple, really. "Stay in the courtyard" as Oskar's mother demands, or take a chance and "let the right one in" to his life and try to find some measure of happiness with Eli.

An indictment of an adult world which fails children on every level, Let the Right One In depicts how two adolescents might build an intimate connection, even in the most difficult circumstances. They do so based on a mutual understanding of the things their lives lack: companionship, tenderness, security, and so forth.

After Eli's guardian, Hakan (Per Ragnar) fails to provide for Eli, she says "You were supposed to help me. Do I really need to take care of myself?" The answer, at first, is yes...until Oskar comes along. Once he's in the picture, the children will be able to take care of each other. They even develop a secret language, learning Morse Code so they can converse through walls...and, helpfully, through crates/coffins.

I shouldn't give the impression that the film ends happy. That wouldn't be true to the universe established by the filmmakers. Certainly, the bullies get their violent comeuppance (in a splendidly and innovatively-executed sequence involving a swimming pool and a camera positioned underwater...). And yeah, Oskar and Eli have grown a connection together, but really...what future do they have? What future can they possibly have together? Oskar will grow up...and Eli won't. Which will leave Oskar with the heartbreaking choice of either leaving Eli behind or becoming...the next Hakan. Not a happy or romantic option, to be certain. The "realities" of adulthood, the ones which destroyed Oskar's parents, will seek him out too. In time.

No, the Eli/Oskar friendship is merely a temporary respite against the snow, the warmth of a fire that burns bright, but will fade to cinders all too soon. Maybe, suggests Let the Right One In, that's the best humans can ultimately hope for. A temporary shelter...before the next blizzard buries us as again in alienation and isolation, ugliness and violence.

So by all means, Let the Right One In to your life. But also Let the Right One Stay. Eli and Oskar have just begun to weather the storm of adulthood. Even though, for right now, they have each won't be an easy journey.

The snow still falls...


  1. I came out of the movie with the impression that this is not the first time Eli has developed a curious relationship with a young boy. I think the first time was her "guardian", many many years ago. He has a telling line, something like, "After all, what else am I good for?" This is all he's done with his life and all he knows how to do. And now Oskar will meet the same fate, 100% devotion to his vampiric friend until he ages to the point where he's no longer useful.

  2. Excellent review John; it's almost as beautiful as the movie itself! I have nothing to add except that I think the conlusion is reminiscent of the ending of movies like Pan's Labyrinth or even the latest X-Files where ultimately, the conclusion depends on the viewer's own philosophy. If you're optimist, you'll hope that they'll have eternal love through vampirism. If you're pessimist, you know that all good things come to an end and Oskar will ultimately end up in servitude, enslaved by his own love. Yet you are right that the general tone of the movie certainly hints toward the latter, more depressing, interpretation.

  3. I didn't think of it that way. The open interpretation is definitely a plus. Before I checked out all the blog chatter, I thought that Eli and Oskar would find some happiness. I didn't put a time frame like temporary love or eternal happiness.

    But definitely, I loved this movie.

  4. Outstanding review of a beguiling film.

    Probably the best vampire movie I've ever seen.

  5. Thanks Pax! Glad you enjoyed the review, and I agree with your conclusion about Let The Right One In (even more so after seeing Twilight...).


  6. John Mumby11:24 AM

    What an excellent review John, thanks for your insight.

    You have given me a brilliant new perspective on the film which only adds to its monumental excellence in my mind. Your perceptions of the philosophical connotations of the film are vastly intriguing.

    Thanks and kind regards

  7. woodchuckgod11:08 AM

    Just watched this the other night on your recommend here - Thank you. I generally don't do vampire genre as a rule, but this was a welcome and fascinating exception.