Canon Entry - Let the Right One In (2008)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Time has not been kind to Tomas Alfredson. Or at least 2017 wasn’t. His big Hollywood detective/serial killer film The Snowman aspired to be something like Gone Girl, a trashy genre pic that was elevated by excellent cinematography, flawless direction and editing, and compelling performances. Instead, it was derided as possibly the worst movie of the year.
I have not had the dubious pleasure of watching The Snowman, but what I gleaned from reviews, formal and informal, was that Alfredson wasn’t necessarily at fault. Still, the criticism of that movie was enough for me to treat Let the Right One In in a much harsher light, even though it had made a huge impression on me when I had seen it ten years ago. Also, I had not been overly impressed by Alfredson’s previous effort, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I found it to be a little too measured and heavy-handed and that Alfredson was too concerned with indulging himself in his antiseptic aesthetic to tell an involving story.
I did not have anything to worry about. Let the Right One In is still one of the best examples of how to put a new twist on a familiar genre. Vampires in film tend to fall into two camps - sexy, otherworldly beings or monsters who struggle with the curse that has been put on them, sometimes both. Vampires as sex symbols reached their nadir with the Twilight series. Vampires as cursed creatures all follow in the long shadow of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. While Let the Right One In does fall in the latter camp a bit more, it is also one of the few films in which the vampire seems...human.
Not that Eli (Lina Leandersson) really remembers what it is like to be human. She has just moved into the same apartment complex as Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), who has been enduring with silent rage constant, terrifying bullying from the other kids at school. One of Eli’s first impressions of Oskar is when he unleashes his anger on a tree, stabbing it while punctuating his stabs with Travis Bickle-like interrogations to no one.
Even though Eli resolutely warns Oskar that they will not be friends, they are inevitably drawn to each other. Both are lonely, even though Eli has a guardian of sorts and Oskar lives with his mother. Long before Oskar realizes Eli’s true nature, he knows that he and Eli are of the same ilk and that they see the world in the same way, as a cold, ruthless place that is on home for them. Much of the more tender moments in this film are in both characters’ attempts to simulate what they see as mature behavior in the real world. When Eli crawls naked into Oskar’s bed, it is the most innocent thing that he/she does. Also, in that intimate scene, Oskar shyly asks Eli to go steady with him. When Eli asks him what that means, he can’t answer.
What really connects these two is their willingness to accept each other for who they are. Oskar clearly has the more difficult job, especially when he learns of Eli’s bloody past. The film certainly does not shy away from showing Eli at her most monstrous, but even then, we can still recognize that she is a creature of need. Leandersson is so good at bringing such a vulnerability to her role even when she is tearing away at a victim’s throat. She also admirably does not fall into the trap of playing up her femininity and making Eli some sort of weird damsel in distress. Eventually, Eli urges Oskar to “Try to be like me. Just for a little bit,” which ends up in a violent confrontation with his bully. It is then we realize for certain that the monstrousness is hardly limited to the vampire.
The film falls apart if you examine its message, or lack thereof, too closely. Are we to assume that violence is an appropriate way to solve conflicts especially if it’s possible to escape the consequences of it? After all, the climax of the film is a beautifully executed yet subtle bloodbath that frees both protagonists in a manner of speaking.
And what about Eli’s motivations? Is he/she playing the long con on Oskar and has he/she gotten so good at affecting empathy that he/she could fool even the most observant people? To address this question, I have this thought: Oscar may be perfectly aware of what his life would be like with Eli, and maybe he’s still willing to endure it. Like many great films, this one can entertain different interpretations without detracting from its power.
The strength of the film is really its tight narrative, sharp dialogue and its performances. While certain directors can have a profound influence on their work, I think Tomas Alfredson shines when he has a great story and script. There may be great directors who thrive on improvisation and playfulness, but Alfredson is not one of them. Not that this is a bad thing. He should definitely be credited for creating a world that serves the story perfectly. You can feel the cold creeping into your bones, just from looking at the images on screen. The film gets so much tension from non-obvious ways just because of expert staging. There are also so many little choices that just make this film so great - Eli’s androgynous look, the subtle change his/her voice makes, the merciful lack of exposition, stemming from a trust in the audience’s intelligence, and so many more. Even if we are never to see a film as great as Let the Right One In from Alfredson, he can at least be forgiven for making The Snowman, whether or not he deserves all the blame.