Sunday, October 19, 2008

Let The Right One In

"Let The Right One In" is a vampire movie out of Norway, directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted for the screen by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel. The film is a snowy swirl of humor, terror, sweetness and beauty lead by two capable young actors, and effectively bobs and weaves through its genre to create an absolute pleasure of a movie. From Hoyte Van Hoytema's consistently smart, subtle cinematography to the always present, never intrusive score by Johan Soderqvist, "Let The Right One In" fires on all cylinders and uses just the right combination of all of its elements to make you squirm, laugh, and often do both at the same time.

The story is told from the point of view of twelve year old Oskar, played by a confident and fragile Kare Hedebrant. Oskar is, in a sense, isolated from his community: his mother is present and caring but doesn't know anything about Oskar's school life; namely the fact that he is being bullied by a trio of kids to the point of desperation. Oskar has taken to practicing tough talk and, alarmingly, his knife work on a tree outside of his apartment, and it is here that he meets Eli, played by Lina Leandersson. She is also twelve...give or take. Eli is just the friend Oskar has been looking for: she's smart, cute, promotes his mental well-being by not shunning him as the bullies do, and also is very, very hungry for the blood of mortals. She's been sending her aid to go murder people in the woods and drain their blood into a gas can, and who knows how many decades, or centuries she's been twelve years old. But, boy, is Oskar smitten. He even wants to go steady!

Around this story is a small community of characters -- Jocke and Lacke, the weird cat-guy, wives, parents, and some very hilarious school teachers -- that are given such life with such brevety that the old "Don't go in there!" technique is infused with many keen new layers depending which character is involved. Everyone, including Eli, is written without pretense of judgement, so our expectations are torn. "Don't go in there!" becomes "Don't go in there, Jocke, what will your wife think? And Eli, can't you eat someone else? Save her Oskar! But everyone would be better without her!" followed swiftly by a number pleasing, emphatic "Oh, shit" moments. The film does such a good job in wrapping us up in these characters that it is rarely the vampire we are scared of, but sometimes who we are scared for, and sometimes she's nowhere even near the frights or the most affecting violence. An (almost) entirely character-driven horror flick about twelve year old love and appetite: who would have thought, right?

As the film moves along, the brittle and subtle nature of the first half gives way to a more brutal and intrusive second half. The violence is no longer hidden by snow and ice, but rather splayed across cold lenoleum and finally dumped grotesquely into a public pool. Twice are these images horrible -- a body ejected from a window and a brief glimpse to a part of Eli we know we should never have seen -- and as one watches it, the realization comes that perhaps this is a movie that will stick with you in a different way, in a way more horrible than initially expected. Only briefly does this intrusion wander into the ridiculous, with an unfortunate array of computer-generated cats, but luckily the film moves on quickly enough that it can be forgotten, or at least ignored.

Like any horror genre, the vampire is a metaphor for some greater humanly concern. Zombies can be said to represent the fear of the past, the dead, or history. They signal an attempt to flee from mainstream culture, and in some cases the necessity of building a home, a functioning community that withstands this culture. "Tru Blood," another contemporary and far subordinate vampire story, somewhat blatantly stated that vampires have come to represent the discrimination and homogenization of certain minority groups, beyond its usual connotations of sexual appetite and the struggle to live past one's means. "Let The Right One In" does a wonderful thing and wraps the genre around its own concerns, rather than giving into these established meanings. With Oskar and Eli, vampirism seems initially to be an exploration of youg infatuation, impossible love, and a struggle with pubescent confusion and sexuality. But then, by the end of the film, the metaphor is turned on itself once again, and comes to mean something wholly debatable; on one hand fantastic, marvellously romantic, on the other hand a struggle for hope and realism.

This tug-of-war between genre and character is, in a way, the mark of a truly good film. "Let The Right One In" attacks our expectations, and navigates horrific waters with a lightness of humor. At times, it forces us to look straight into this horror when we think we don't want to, but once the credits have rolled it also makes us rethink why we were made to look in the first place. We are left to reconcile for ourselves how much horror, how much sweetness, how much hope or humor we take away from the whole experience, but ultimately it was exactly that which we just went through: an experience.

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