Friday, 18 February 2011

Review: Let The Right One In (Spoilers)

Oskar, a bullied 12-year old, dreams of revenge. He falls in love with Eli, a peculiar girl. She can't stand the sun or food and to come into a room she needs to be invited. Eli gives Oskar the strength to hit back but when he realizes that Eli needs to drink other people's blood to live he's faced with a choice. How much can love forgive? (from

Review (***Spoilers***):

The title of "genre film" is a peculiar, treacherous mistress: Whatever genre the picture in question, by mere dint of the moniker, it will inevitably draw preconceptions. The very name means that it can be easily pigeonholed. Most genre films are therefore perceived as formulaic, low-brow examples of the cinematic form; a reassuring but unoriginal mix of thrills and chills, maybe some laughs, some possibly even unintentional. Indeed, most offer little more than a temporary distraction, devoid of original ideas and warranting no contemplation once the viewer has left the darkness of the screening room. Because of this prejudice amongst more "serious" filmgoers, few movies are better placed to confound expectation than genre films, especially those in the harder genres, such as horror.

Let The Right One In is just such a film. Right from the stark white, small, block capitalised title cards, it is clear that this is something other than a compendium of cheap parlour tricks. It is also uniquely, unmistakeably Swedish. It does not open with a jolting scare or kill, as might be usual for the genre, but rather with a measured and near wordless introduction to our two leads: the gawky, awkward Oskar, who harbours a disturbing fantasy of violence which runs counter to his innocence, and the sickly Eli, rendered intriguing by the nature of her relationship with Håkan, her guardian.

The film does come to its first kill in short order. An almost casually efficient setup at home leads into an objectively shot scene of a simple, methodical bloodletting. Alfredson maintains this non-judgmental, "stand back and watch" approach to violence throughout the film. As a result, all of these scenes serve the story and advance the characters, rather than pandering to any trivial concepts of right and wrong or good vs. bad.

In this first instance, the killer is all too human, and when unable to handle interruption by a not remotely threatening poodle (he ineffectually throws a handful of snow at it and tells it to "shoo"), he quickly gathers most of the essential tools and flees before the dog's owners reach the grisly aftermath. The scene closes with the dog lapping up the spilt blood, and with that Let The Right One In has set out its stall: This is a film which defies the usual trappings of the vampire film: the life of a bloodsucker is not glamourous, but grounded in a world of disgust, social exclusion and remorse.

This first murder also reveals two of the film's greatest tools: a fantastic score and truly Oscar-worthy sound design. The composer, Johan Söderqvist, makes sparse but effective use of piano and strings, resulting in a soundtrack which is equally haunting and moving. By opting to show little by way of stunts or gore in the movie (except for a few standout prosthetic appliances), Alfredson allows sound to become a key player in the storytelling.  He uses it to phenomenal effect, whether it be a perfectly timed lorry thundering overhead as tension rises beneath a bridge, or feeling the sting of birch on flesh as Oskar is dealt the swipe of a cane by his bullies.

This in turn means that the audience is incited to indulge their own imagination, a concession rarely afforded in the modern climate. Most studio filmmakers these days have the arrogance to assume either that our creative minds aren't up to much, or that their CG-addled visions are more powerful than our own, private ideas of horror/magnificence/extasy/etc. It is therefore gratifying and immediately endearing to watch a film which encourages us, the audience, to fill in the blanks for ourselves. Even the infamously violent swimming pool scene is remarkable for its visual restraint and composure (and also its witty reversal of Jaws' opening gambit): the muffled sounds of what is happening above water and fleeting glimpses of the carnage tell us all we need to know, our imagination telling us what we would probably do better not to.

let-the-right-one-in-2.jpg (800×344)

Much has been made of the two central performaces by the kids. Certainly, these are very strong, but given the spartan emotional style and stereotypically Scandinavian bleakness (if you saw the Wallander TV series over the winter, you'll have an idea of the tone), one is left wondering if perhaps the minimalist performances are a directorial result of the children's obvious lack of acting experience. Very sensibly, Alfredson never asks too much of either of his leads.

That is not to say that this film is devoid of emotional content, however. Far from it, this film speaks centrally of the most powerful of all the emotions: Love. And not just the joyous promise of romantic love discovered, as the young Oskar finds with Eli, but love in all its forms, whether unrequited, mutual, or lost: The brotherly love shared by two men coming home from the bar, soon to be rended by death, which the tragic figure of the wife cannot replace; The inevitable sadness of the love of partners unilaterally expired, leaving the love of a disciple, as that of Håkan for his ward Eli, who is demonstrably willing to give up absolutely everything for her; The love of a parent for their children, notable chiefly for its near absence from Oskar's life.

So we come to realise that the title may not solely allude to the old convention that, on pain of death, a vampire can only enter a home when invited. Alfredson might also be telling us, in fittingly Swedish guardedness, that we should be careful to whom we open our hearts, for the wrong one might just ruin them.

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