Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Movies: There is no right one.

I'm going to cheat a bit on this one. This is a review of Let the Right One In. By the time I finish typing this sentence, it will be the 4,724,049,182nd review of Let the Right One In on the Internet. Of those, nearly 4,724,049,173 of them do a better job of summarizing the flick than I could do. So, here's the lazy man's way out of this problem. I'm just going to link to one of those better reviews and avoid the heavy lifting. Click over to Arbogast, get the 411, and then come back if you're still curious about what I have to say.

Oh, hi. You're back. Okay, so I'll make with my little review now.

Critics have, I think, been both right and wrong about the much-lauded Swede vamp import Let the Right One In.

What are they right about?

I'm going to have to add my voice to the great mass of self-appointed Interweb pundits who have claimed that Let the Right One In was, hands down, 2008's best flick. An intense, moody, mature work of art, Let the Right One In is a confident success on almost every level.

Visually, the film smartly blends the painterly vistas directors like Greenaway and Hanke to the needs of its pulpy subject matter in a way that feels neither gimmicky nor like the slumming of dilettantes. Set among the grim blocks of a 1980s housing project and the bare, hypnotizing birch forests that surround the complex, the film has a strangely beautiful bleakness to it. One has to cast back to Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 detective thriller Insomnia, another art house provocation disguised as pulp fiction, to find a backdrop as powerfully grim.

The film relies on the acting chops of two child actors – a disaster-courting move that a lesser flick wouldn't have recovered from. Cleverly, the film escapes the trap of having the children communicate emotion by establishing a sort of affectless hyper-Method, the semi-official acting style of the Euro art scene, as a baseline. Characters in this film listen to somebody speak; then they pause, as if to ponder every possible nuance and shade of meaning of what they've heard; and then slowly reply in sentences so carefully measured and fully enunciated that one imagines the characters selecting the most appropriate phrases they can find out of a tiny stock of pre-made government-approved phrases designed by a committee following the same brutalist muses as the architects who designed the characters' block homes. It is, in its way, as fake and stylized as opera acting or the scene gnashing camp of Vincent Price, but it so perfectly fits with the rest of the film, the snow-blinded colors, pale and sickly interiors, and lifeless forests, that it doesn't jar. In a way, the short-lived debate over subtitling was somewhat irrelevant. How these characters talked was more important than anything they had to say. These characters speak in unpainted brick and frost.

Finally, the baggy, slow burn narrative structure is a deceptive trap; as it untangles, you realize that every thread was going to some into play somehow. The film's divergent story lines come together so effectively that anybody how has paid even the slightest attention is going to feel rewarded for their efforts. In fact, that's the brilliance of the LtROI's particular fusion of art house and genre filmmaking: The film demands you work a little, but then it is sure pay you for making the commitment.

There is a downside to making viewers feel like they've got to puzzle out the piece. Which brings us to the second obvious question of the piece.

What have reviewers got wrong?

Before we get into this, you should really go see the movie and decide what you think about it before I start running my mouth. Going beyond this point means you agreed to me running my mouth off.


For all the trash talking mainstream horror audiences have been eager to pile upon Twilight, there appears to be a near universal desire to turn Let the Right One In into little more than a slightly more toughened-up version of the same story. The relationship between Oskar and Eli has been described as "puppy love." Critics have suggested it is a tale of "friendship" between the inhuman Eli and the social misfit Oskar. The idea that this is a film about the awkwardness of first love has been proposed by several reviewers.

I think this interpretation misses the "horror" of this particular horror film entirely.

Early in the film we learn that vampires (cribbing an oft ignored part of vampire lore) are obsessive about puzzles. They are really good at them. Much better at them, actually, than humans are. I think that odd little fact is the key to the flick as a whole.

Eli doesn't love Oskar. She's trapping him. And he can't put the puzzle pieces together to see it.

The central plot of Let the Right One In - stripped of the post-Buffy, pseudo-Freudian, semi-Twilight Romanticism - is about a Dracula in search of a new Renfield. When the film opens, Eli is cared for by an aging, tired man named Hakan. Reviewers often describe Hakan as a father figure who is trying to keep Eli's existence a secret by killing for her. But Hakan isn't a father figure. He's the previous Oskar.

When Oskar and Eli first meet, she's hesitant to befriend him. As Hakan continues to fail at his task of finding fresh food for Eli, Eli's interest in Oskar grows. Eventually Hakan so botches a blood-gathering attempt that Eli must dispatch him. Curiously, Hakan's final attempt to secure blood for Eli is so poorly executed, viewers should, I think, consider the possibility that it was a suicide run.

She then attempts to gather food on her own, but without the beard of a "serial killer" to hide her feeding, she makes a hash of it. Not only does she arouse the suspicions of the other block residents, but she is spotted and unintentionally creates a new vampire who makes an even bigger mess of things.

At a loss, she approaches Oskar and, cleverly, gets him to drop his guard. As in much traditional vampire lore, the bloodsuckers can get you until you invite them into your home. Eli waits until Oskar's mother leaves the house one night and then comes to his door. She informs him that she has to be invited in. He asks what would happen if he didn't invite her. Here, she could say, "Good question. I'd be powerless to do shit to you in you home. In the interest of preserving some sort of power balance in this relationship – what we me being a vampire or fatal power and unknown age and you being a love struck 12 year old, perhaps I shouldn't come in." But she doesn't. Without explaining what it might mean for his health should she go all bitey, she walks in and begins leaking blood out all of her facial orifices. Panicked, Oskar immediately invites her in and she returns quickly to health.

There are other hints regarding Eli intentions. When Oskar embraces Eli, most notably after she pulls her "let me in or I'll hurt myself" stunt, he embraces her face to face. When Eli embraces Oskar, she does it from behind, facing his back. This is the same way she takes the victims we watch her feed off. The implication is that Oskar is not a love interest, he's a resource.

Further, in response to Oskar's awkward and unsure advances, Eli repeated mentions that she's "not a girl." This is, I think, meant to be an earnest confession of the fact that she isn't potential romantic partner. Loving her is not unlike falling for a female tiger or shark: She's female, but there's a crucial species difference there.

Finally, there's the "age difference." Vampires who don't want to be vampires have a really easy way out. As happens to the new vamp Eli accidentally makes in the film, they can simply extinguish themselves in the sunlight. (NB: All of the characters Eli let's into her life, either as a man Friday or a fellow vampire, end up destroying themselves.) Eli, notably, is not suicidal. Much has been made of her "need" to feed, but that doesn't excuse the fact that, if she believed people weren't cattle, she could do something about it. So, I think it is safe to conclude that Eli is content to be killer and a predator. She must also then be content with the fact that she won't age, but any humans around her will. She knows Hakan got old and just couldn’t cut it, no pun intended, anymore. Why then, if she knows this, does she not offer to turn Oskar into a vampire? Because she doesn't want him to suffer being a vampire? That doesn't make sense. She's not suffering. Suffering vampires turn themselves into Roman candles. I propose that she doesn't offer him vampirehood because she needs him to grow old. He's more useful as an adult and, when the time comes, it's comforting to know he comes with an expiration date. She can, after all, get another Renfield. She got Oskar after Hakan died, didn't she?

The real horror of the flick lies in the fact that Oskar is happily setting himself for the life of misery and exploitation that Hakar leaves so painfully in the early part of the film. Ironically, much has been made of the creepy relationship dynamics of the vampire/human pairing in Twilight, but cult horror audiences and mainstream critics have been seemingly uninterested in exposing the same abusive dynamics at work here. (It is because of the gender switch? Try to imagine the response to this film if the genders of the protags were swapped.) But Oskar's blinded by his by love. We know what's going to happen to him, but he doesn't get it. That's the scary thing.

Which lead us to the trick of the title: Let the Right One In. No other vampire ever tries to gain entrance into Oskar's home. Just Eli. The choice implied by the title is nonexistent.


Sean T. Collins said...

Yeah, for crying out loud, it was weird to see so few people pick up on what Oskar's fate was eventually going to be.

Heather Santrous said...

Sorry but I disagree some with both you, and Sean. Do you really think that Oskar would be able to go around killing people for Eli, and not get caught doing so? Unless he goes around killing other kids, I can't see him overtaking an adult. I didn't see Hakan as the father figure. Rather more of an old pervert. I don't think he has been killing for Eli for very long. His attempts to kill people for Eli are clumsy at best, and I don't think its because of his age. Hakan seems to be jealous of Oskar. Hakan and Eli even talk about an arrangement they have with each other.

Eli doesn't tell Oskar that she isn't female because she is a vampire or a monster. This is only hinted at in the movie, and I wish they had done a better job at explaning it, but she says this because it's true. In the novel, Eli is actually a boy. Before being turned into a vampire, he has his genitals mutilated in a ritual. We catch a glimpse of the scars in the film. Why else would that shot be in the film?

Maybe Oskar will eventually begin killing for Eli, but I like to think there is more to their relationship than just that. Rather it be love, or just friendship.

Paul said...

I thought the title was the other way around - Eli needs 'the right one' to take over her welfare. In a way, it's an interestingly misogynistic reading of human relationships, with Eli as the high-maintainence girlfriend, and Oskar as the sugar daddy type. But - like Sean T above - wasn't it blindingly obvious that Oskar was being groomed? I'm amazed to think that people aren't getting this part of it, as it's the one plot element that really raises this above the parapet of your average revisionist vampire flick.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Heather,

Thanks for clarifying that scene. It was unclear to me exactly why there appeared to an unnecessary beaver shot of a 12 year old in the flick, but I was hesitant to rewind and study the scene for fear that the FBI would want to talk about it later. That certainly provides a better explanation of the line – though it leaves anybody who hasn't read the book out of luck. That explains her having a boy's name too.

Still, that doesn't total negate my point, which is that Eli is a creature above the boy/girl thing. Eli just isn't built for it anymore. It's like the scene where she eats chocolate. The assumption of a loving relationship – in any two consenting human way, regardless of gender – flies in the face of all the evidence and Oskar is willfully blind to it.

As for Oskar killing somebody, I'm not sure that follows. On two occasions Oskar "contributes" to Eli's feeding by being the focal point of human attentions while Eli springs. Plus, he defends her when her home is invaded. Finally, we see him carting her around would when the daylight would normally incapacitate her. Oskar doesn't have to start killing for her to be useful. Plus, like Hakan, the deeper he gets in the deal, the harder it will be to not do what she asks. Eventually you're stuck between murder and a pissed off vampire.

And, notably, even if Hakan was an old pervert (which is, I'm told a bigger deal in the novel – were he also becomes a zombie, apparently), that would just establish a pattern of Eli using people who are attracted to her for her Renfields.

I can see where you're coming from, but I still think it is the intention of the filmmaker to show, if somewhat ambiguously, that Oskar's being prepped to be Eli's new man Friday.

Basically, it comes down to this: Everybody who gets tangled up with Eli suffers a horrible fate. If Eli really loved Oskar, why would she allow that to happen to him?

Danny S said...

The director actually openly remarks that possibility that maybe Oskar will become the next care taker (Hakan) in his interviews... that's if you purely look at it in the movie's point of view. The book clearly makes it clear that this is not the case... Eli at one point even hesitantly offers Oskar "would you like to become like me?" at which Oskar answers "no, i would like to be with you..." Eli says "of course.. i understand." But again, if we look at the movie alone, your theory makes sense.

By the way, I highly recommend the book... it's a very good read. It won't take anything away from the movie, really. You might even love the movie more :)

CRwM said...

Danny S,

Thanks for stopping by. I must admit that I was avoiding the book on the basis that it sounded kind cheesy to me. But, more and more, people are telling me I should give it a chance. Reckon I should quit stalling and get to reading.

Michael said...

I drew the same conclusion initially, that Hakan was the original Oskar, but was confused as to how he was such a crap killer then. Hearing about the book cleared it up, it's extremely sad, even if he was a paedifile, that he was so hopeless in his attraction to Eli, which, like Oskar's, was completely above a sexual one.

However, it isnt so black and white as to say that she was simply looking for a caretaker. We are all capable of using people we also love. She resists the temptation to draw him in at first, she knows it's wrong, she even leaves him, but she cant help it, she does feel love for him, and she does need him, so she gives in. Oskar is going into this with his eyes wide open too, i would imagine he might not be capable of it now, but someday he will kill for her.

CRwM said...


I'm coming around to your way of thinking on this - it seems reductive to say that there's no feelings on the part of Eli. There is clearly affection between Eli and Oskar.

That said, I think love is too strong a word and I think it's also inaccurate to think Oskar is fully aware of the situation.

At best, Eli's relationship with Oskar is abusive. She knows that she's going to drag him into all manner of hell and does it anyway. Would being in love with the person you're going to harm excuse the harm?

Further, Oskar – unlike Eli who simply appears young – is only 12. He also seems to be fairly isolated and I think we can assume this is pretty much his first major relationship. What kind of informed consent could he really give in this situation?

As for Hakan being a pedo – isn't Eli one too? She's not actually 12-years-old. She just looks it. (Actually, now that I think on it, isn't it more correct to say that Eli's a pedo and Hakan is not?)

I guess it boils down to whether or not one believes that any sincerity in Eli's motivations would excuse the damage her actions will cause and whether Oskar can really consent. I answer no on both counts, but I can see the point of people who answer yes to either question.

I have not read the book yet (though the filmmakers left so much out and did so in an intentional way – the Hakan zombie, for example), so how that would change my opinions, I couldn't say. I do think, however, that the movie should be viewed in strictly on its own terms and not as something that needs to be unlocked with the book. I feel the filmmakers didn't just "leave out" stuff from the book, but rather they made a film that would work in its own right.

Reed said...

I can see where you're coming from, CRwM and I respect it. I think that's the beauty of the movie. It lets you form your own conclusion about it. :)

But in the book, it's pretty obvious that Eli does love him. "He saw only himself... but more handsome and more stronger than he ever thought. Seen with love."

Reading the novel would give a better understanding I guess?

But ya, like every other person said, I'd recommend reading the book.

victor said...

This post hits on some things but misses out some important interconnections.
To me the movie did leave open the question whether or not Oscar will become the new bloodsupplier - Eli did encourage him to "hit back" and they did work together in killing the drunk griever in the flat. That said, to me Eli represents a sort of repressed animal - a hidden guilt on the part of Oscar - who fantasizes killing his tormentors but finds his nature too weak to do so and so feels guilty.
Eli feels guilty by her impulses that harm others - her relationship with Haken was one of mutual guilt. The man felt guilty in providing her with blood - but only did so because Eli felt guilty of doing so herself. When Eli killed the man under the bridge - she cried.
This was reversed in her relationship with Oscar. She could live out her nature as a solution to the puzzle of oscar's weakness - they could co-exist guilt free. Oscar could keep his innocence.
There is always the implication, however that the unholy union sets Oscar on the path to becoming Eli's bloodsupplier - but this is not due to intention of Eli - it is due to what is within both their natures - the same flight from guilt that brought them together and the need they have for each other causes Oscar to alert Eli into killing the drunk intruder - holding the knife he fantasises with - too weak to do it himself but willing to sacrifice him to preserve Eli. The consequent unholy kiss - the kiss of coming of age. The poolside killing was a spectacular baptism whereby this union was affirmed and the movie ends very allegorical - Oscar travelling with Eli kept hidden - he communicates to her - as one communicates to a conscience when denial is the best way of keeping sanity - in a code. There remain unanswered questions - whether this relationship fosters innocence and freedom or whether this is how Eli inadvertently "turns" Oscar into a Bloodsupplier - when Oscar becomes guilty for what Eli has to do to survive he may decide to kill for her and so become the guilt that Eli sought to escape from. Eli tells oscar that the relationship should stay the way it is - but oscar allows Eli in out of pity for her and [s]he also tells Oscar to "be me".