By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 7, 2008
"I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone ?"
-- "Stand by Me," 1986
Movies about kids have usually concerned either the littlest among us or those working out their differences with adulthood. But the new Swedish drama "Let the Right One In" -- which shares with "Stand by Me" an appreciation of the 12-year-old state of mind -- lurks in a cold, dark, brooding territory, inhabited by people both haunting and terrified: tweens.
The primary one here is Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), the pink-skinned, white-blond child of a single mother, a loner and a target, whose days include having his pants stuffed into a gym urinal or having a cane lashed across his milky cheek -- all by his personal, and very devoted, trio of schoolyard bullies.
The other is Eli (Lina Leandersson), the dark-eyed waif who moves into Oskar's apartment block, goes barefoot in the snow and gives Oskar something to live for -- even though she is technically dead. Or, rather, undead.
Yep: Eli is a vampire, and "Let the Right One In" (probably the most uninviting title of a film this year) is, in the basest of terms, a horror flick. But it's also a spectacularly moving and elegant movie, and to dismiss it into genre-hood -- to mentally stuff it into the horror pigeonhole -- is to overlook what is at this point the best film of the year. Two of the sadder things about "Let the Right One In" are that it's being distributed as part of a genre series and that it's going to be remade for the U.S. market.
No offense, but it seems unlikely that the American adaptation won't be something like an all-harmonica version of Beethoven's Ninth.
From the cool blue cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema to the intelligence and subtlety of the script by John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapted from his novel), "Let the Right One In" executes all the right moves technically, and another director might be able to emulate that. Capturing its considerable soul is another thing.
Start with Oskar: Almost an angelic cliche, he is smarter, prettier and lonelier than anyone in his school, so he naturally attracts abuse from the bullies; his mother has no clue about his plight. We see him, knife in hand, fantasizing about revenge on his tormenters, repeating the same baiting words they use on him and stabbing his blade into a tree. Behind him, he discovers, Eli is watching, a dark-eyed, black-haired, sallow-looking girl, who immediately informs Oskar that they can't be friends; rigorous honesty, it seems, is the hallmark of the preadolescent ghoul (she must be invited into Oskar's room, for instance, hence the title). Oskar is desperate enough to settle for close acquaintance. And Eli, as it develops, needs an ally.
The horror aspects of "Let the Right One In" toy with the audience's existing vampire knowledge -- specifically, the survivor guilt inherent in the immortal bloodsuckers of modern ghoul lit. Eli doesn't want to put the bite on anyone. For that, she has Hakan (Per Ragnar), who is old enough to be her grandfather and who seems to be at the end of his usefulness: When he sets out to collect blood for Eli -- his MO is to anesthetize a victim, string him upside down, slash his throat and drain him into a plastic gasoline jug -- he picks a too-conspicuous spot and is interrupted by dog walkers. Eli has to kill a local, though it grieves her to do it, and the murder becomes front-page news. At that point, it seems only a matter of time before she's driven from yet another town.
Where Eli is a walking (and flying) mystery, Oskar is an open book: He's tortured at school; home isn't a lot better. When he's sent off to visit his estranged father on some remote Swedish farm, his joy is palpable. A shot of the boy on a snowmobile, his ecstatic face pushed into an icy wind, is bliss. But his duet with his father becomes full of flattened grace notes. When their backgammon game is interrupted by a neighbor with a vodka bottle, it's clear Oskar knows the truth about Dad, and we know the truth about Dad and Mom. And Oskar's options become all too clear. Life with Eli starts to look better and better.
Unkindness is evil, and overstatement a sin, in "Let the Right One In." Vampirism, which has provided a metaphor for sex, AIDS and outsider status over the last several decades, is in this film more about survival and symbiosis: Even at her most blood-desperate, Eli resists making Oskar one of her meals (the sound you hear, which at first suggests the purring of cats, is the rumbling of Eli's insatiable appetite). So she dines instead on the unhealthy herd of local barflies who wander into her web at closing time: One woman, whom Eli bites but doesn't kill, provides the film's most conventionally creepy moments, becoming a scratching post for fear-maddened cats and eventually bursting into flames.
But most of "Let the Right One In" provides more of a generalized and constant sense of unease. What is Eli after? "I'm not a girl," she tells Oskar. "Okay," he answers, "but do you want to go steady or not?" Oskar possesses the androgynous heart of the preadolescent. And he's emboldened by love: In one of director Tomas Alfredson's most startling moments, the camera pulls back as Oskar delivers retribution on his nemesis, avoiding the easy melodrama inherent in the moment, and making it indelible.
Eli is a slippery matter. She is 12, "more or less," she tells Oskar, but we know -- Alfredson shows us, in several fleeting, disturbing snapshots, just how old she might be. Her late, unlamented assistant, Hakan, may have been her husband; he may have been her father; he may have been only the latest in a long line of companions devoted to Eli's survival. He may, in fact, have signed on to the Eli campaign when he was just the age of Oskar, whose need for love has him looking for a friend -- not on the Internet, but in the realms of the undead.
Let the Right One In (114 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for some bloody violence, including disturbing images, and for brief nudity and language.