If you see just one movie this year about a bullied Swedish albino who convinces a 12-year-old vampire to go steady with him, you owe it to yourself to make it Let the Right One In. It is mournfully beautiful. It is brilliantly original and masterfully directed. It is the best work of fiction on film I’ve seen so far this year.
Set in a forlorn suburb of Stockholm, the picture stars Kare Hedebrant as a lonely child of divorce by the name of Oskar. He lives with his mother. While she watches television programs too idiotic for him to bother with, he spends his evenings outside in the apartment complex’s ice-coated playground, acting out fantasies of revenge against three classmates who routinely taunt and abuse him at school. He has procured a knife he will not need.
One night a young girl suddenly appears on the jungle gym behind him. Her name is Eli, and she is played by a raven-haired tween named Lina Leandersson. After some small talk, she casually informs Oskar, “I can’t be your friend.” Nonetheless, they continue to meet night after night, grow close as only two outsiders can, and develop a bond that defies easy description.
They are, after all, more than friends — but at the same time too young to fall in love. At least, Oskar is. “Are you 12, too?” he asks Eli. “More or less,” she answers. “But I’ve been 12 for a very long time.” Director Tomas Alfredson juxtaposes the tenderness of their deepening relationship with the violent, ghoulish reality of the enigmatic girl’s private life.
A newcomer from parts unknown, she shares the apartment next door to Oskar’s with a middle-aged man named Hakan (Per Ragnar). The nature of their relationship is hauntingly ambiguous. He is not her father. There are hints that Eli may be somehow using the body of the young girl as a supernatural disguise and that Hakan was at one time her husband. What we do know is that his current primary function is to see to her needs, and that foremost among these is a steady supply of human blood.
In most vampire movies, the hunt for and consumption of blood are a very theatrical business. In contrast, Alfredson depicts them here as a chore, just another mundane errand that must be run, no more exciting or dramatic than paying one’s cable bill or going to the store for a bottle of milk. Equipped with a leather case containing a plastic jug, a funnel, a dagger and a kind of gas mask, Hakan waits in some dark, out-of-the-way spot for an unsuspecting soul to happen by, hangs them upside down, and drains them. The things we do for love.
Every now and then he comes home empty-handed. In one such scene, the 12-year-old’s hunger gets the better of her, and she rages against his failure. I didn’t notice until my third viewing of the film that the director shoots the sequence from behind Eli so as to make it less apparent that she dresses Hakan down in the growl of an adult woman. It’s a subtly creepy effect, and repeated viewings continue to yield easily overlooked freaky touches.
When Hakan fails her, Eli is forced to fend for herself, and here too Alfredson goes for the briefly glimpsed detail over the sort of elaborate F/X set piece that characterizes Hollywood pictures in this genre. Eli means harm to no one, but she is what she is and needs what she needs. Oskar doesn’t question her motives or behavior. He seems to understand instinctively that she’s as much a victim as any of his neighbors — who, as disturbing events multiply, stop showing up at their favorite seedy local watering hole. He doesn’t flinch when he gets his first kiss from Eli, her mouth smeared from a recent feeding.
And pity the fools who continue to pick on the boy at school. “I can help you,” Eli tells her new friend early on. Oskar makes a touching effort to face up to the problem himself. He signs up for a weight-lifting class. At Eli’s suggestion, he even strikes back at the school’s number-one bully. His self-assertion backfires, however, and when his life is threatened, his friend steps in. Not since Carrie has the cinema provided such a shocking and cathartic spectacle of schoolyard justice.
Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In is one of the most affecting explorations of childhood angst, one of the most intriguing riffs on vampire mythology, and one of the most unlikely, yet thoroughly moving, love stories ever to make it to celluloid. From Hoyte van Hoytema’s elegant cinematography to Johan Soderqvist’s otherworldly score, it’s simply a one-of-a-kind screen experience.
Let us hope that Hollywood — reportedly considering an American remake — will have the good sense to leave it that way.