Director: Tomas Alfredson
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is going to seem like a very peculiar way to open a review about a vampire movie, but serendipity led me to it. The hubby put on a Beach Boys CD as I sat fumbling for words, and the song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came on. When I heard the lyrics “And wouldn’t it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong,” I thought, yes, that’s a sentiment Let the Right One In taps. Unlike the kind of sunny romances the Beach Boys immortalized, however, this story of young love comes from Sweden, a land better known for darkness and melancholy. And then there’s that small issue of the lovers being a 12-year-old boy and a vampire who looks like a “12 year old, more or less” girl. This is no trite or gimmicky love story, however. A more emotionally rich, honest, and harrowing film—though properly wrapped in the conventions and graphic horrors of vampire tales—you’re not likely to see for some time.
The film opens in a dreary apartment block in a suburb of Stockholm. Snow covers the ground, and darkness covers the gloom. Moving inside one apartment, we see the back of a boy. He puts his hand to the window and smears a palm print down the pane. We see his face, wistful, pale, framed by fine, pale hair. He has a knife out and pretends to talk to someone, daring that someone to come forward to be stuck like a pig. The boy, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), collects knives and newspaper clippings detailing crime and violence. He lives with his divorced mother, pines for his father who lives a good distance away, and goes to a school where his intelligence, shyness, and status as a child of divorce makes him an object of torment for bully Conny (Patrik Rydmark) and two lackeys. They chase him into a bathroom stall, threaten him, soak his pants in a urinal, and mock him in scenes of painful cruelty.
These bullies are the imaginary pigs at the end of Oskar’s knife, and Oskar goes into the wide courtyard of his apartment complex and repeatedly jabs his knife into a tree. The camera shifts to Oskar’s right to reveal a girl standing on a table, coatless in the frigid night. They have a brief conversation. Her name is Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl who the neighbors said moved into the apartment next to Oskar’s with her father Håkan (Per Ragnar).
Inside the apartment, Håkan is packing a square case with a plastic bottle, a knife, some contraption fitted with a mask, and a plastic coat. He goes into an isolated wood where he encounters a teenage boy. Distracting the boy, Håkan places the mask over the boy’s face and renders him unconscious. He puts on his plastic coat, wraps a rope around the boy’s feet, tosses the rope over a tree limb, and hoists him up. He places the plastic bottle under the boy’s head, slits his throat, and catches the blood that pours from his neck.
Unfortunately for him, a dog out for a walk with his owner catches the scent of blood and runs barking toward Håkan. Håkan flees the scene when he hears human voices. Returning to the apartment, he unpacks his case, only then realizing he left the bottle of blood at the scene. Eli, furious, yells, “Do I have to do everything myself?” “Forgive me,” is Håkan’s only response. Håkan seems to be trying to make something up to her. Her insolence toward him suggests that he might not be her father after all.
On a street near a frozen lake, good friends Lacke (Peter Carlsberg) and Jocke (Mikael Rahm) bid each other a warm good-night after a pleasant night out. Jocke crosses under a bridge, where he encounters a girl cringing in the cold. He goes to her aid, lifting her up to carry her to shelter. The girl is Eli, and grabs him with great ferocity and drains his blood. A prissy, old bachelor with a houseful of cats witnesses the scene. By the time he calls for help, the body is gone—dragged by Håkan to a hole in the ice and dumped in. Only traces of blood are found buried under some soft snow where Jocke’s body fell.
With one confirmed and one suspected death and the townspeople on alert, Eli must remain at home. She spends time with Oskar, and one day, notices that he has a bandage on his cheek. He told his mother that he fell at recess, but in fact, the bullies whipped him with a tree switch and accidentally hit him in the face, leaving a long gash. “You have to fight back,” she counsels. “When they hit, you hit harder.” She also promises him that she will always have his back. When Oskar goes to school the next day, he asks the gym teacher if he can start doing weight training.
Eli’s need for blood sends Håkan out again looking for a “donor.” His attempt to drain a teen athlete while his friends wait for him outside the school goes awry. As the boy is rescued unharmed, Håkan, hiding in the showers of the locker room, pours acid on his face to disguise his identity and keep Eli safe from prying eyes. He is taken to the hospital, and Eli remains at home, hungry.
Her need for blood has weakened her, and her body is starting to give off an odor, which Oskar embarrasses her by commenting upon it. She determines to get what she needs from Håkan, who has been hospitalized. Removing her shoes, she crawls up the side of the building and to his window. In a truly horrifying scene, he unplugs his airway, opens the window, and offers his neck to her. When she is done, he falls lifelessly to the ground.
Others will fall to Eli, even as she falls for Oskar. She crawls into his bed one night, naked, and he remarks on how cold she is. “Is it gross?” she asks. He doesn’t really answer, but he doesn’t turn her away. They lay in silence for a short time, and then Oskar asks her to go steady. She wants things to remain as they are, but he says they can, only they will just be for each other. Since it’s clear they are already a conspiracy of two in a world that has little use for them, it’s easy for Eli to agree. They become more entwined in each other’s lives. Oskar finally asks her if she’s a vampire. “I live on blood, yes.” She invites him into her home, where they dance to pop records. He gains unfettered access to her home, and she watches over him as the bullies escalate their attacks on him.
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2007 novel, Let the Right One In, was a runaway best-seller in Sweden, has already received numerous translations, and has been optioned by United Artists for a mainstream Hollywood version. With so many actual and proposed versions of this story floating around, however, it’s hard to imagine a better version than this film, with a screenplay by the novelist himself. From what I’ve read about the novel, many things that were left vague in the film are explicitly spelled out. I think the story may be better served by the visual and aural mood of the film craft, the simple and sometimes inarticulate conversations of Oskar and Eli, and the faded, shadowy adults who react to events but never penetrate the true mystery of connectedness. Indeed, the most emotionally remote among the characters are the ones who suffer the most awful fate.
The land itself seems permeated with loneliness as depicted in glorious Cinemascope by camera artist Hoyte Van Hoytema. He captures flat, linear images—the exterior wall of the apartment building in which Oskar and Eli live with its square, symmetrical, characterless windows; the straight maze of white-trunked birches in which Håkan commits murder; the vast expanse of a frozen lake in a monochrome world. In such a void, every sound is magnified. The meticulously detailed sound design gives us Eli’s animal growl as she feeds. We hear the wet sounds of mouths eating or nervously salivating. We hear each blow of Oskar’s beating and the strange sounds of unseen action while Oskar is underwater. The musical score contributes a foreboding structure, yet yields to tenderness as the love story progresses. Special effects are spare, realistic for the givens of the story, and deeply affecting and startling. Watch for a brief moment when Eli asks Oskar to “be me,” and Eli’s face as she would appear if she looked her real age flashes briefly, showing not only the successful connection between the pair, but also a human longing in her “human” face.
The remarkable performances of Hedebrant and Leandersson as Oskar and Eli command the lion’s share of the attention in the film. Eli, who’s “been 12 for a long time,” never really had a chance to live as a human. She still has a thirst for life that has kept her going through the loneliness and rootlessness of a vampire’s existence. Her existence isn’t depicted as sinister or horror-mongering, however. She does what she has to do without making a big thing of it. When Oskar seems to judge her for killing people, she puts him in his place by saying he’s just like her. “The first time I ever heard you, you were talking about killing. I do it to live. You want revenge.” When they finally kiss, Eli’s mouth is stained with blood, enacting a version of the blood-mixing alliance Oskar attempted before he knew her true nature.
The trailer below showcases the amazing look of this film, with all the horror traditionally associated with a vampire story and only a hint of the vital heart beating at its center when both Eli and Oskar “let the right one in.”
A fine interview with the director by Todd Brown of Twitch is worth reading. It doesn’t contain major spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read it before I saw the film. This is a film that should be felt, not examined. l