Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Let Them All In... Let the Right One In book/movie/remake

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let Them All In... Let the Right One In book/movie/remake


Let the Right One In (2008) is #95 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade. Along with this film, I will also be discussing the recent American remake, Let Me In (2010) and the book Låt den rätte komma in (2004) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, upon which both are based. There will be spoilers.

On a silent, snowy evening, a taxi pulls up to a deserted courtyard. The cold, lonely apartment blocks loom overhead, watching implacably, either unwilling to share their secrets, or without any secrets to share. But one frosted window at least has a human face in it – a little blonde boy, bare-chested, uneasily gripping a knife in one hand, the other pressed up against the glass, leaving a faint imprint, a marker to shout out impotently, “I was here!” Out of the taxi steps an older man and a young girl; though together, they still seem fundamentally alone - even that lonely boy upstairs has a warm, well-lit room behind him. On reaching their own room, the mysterious couple begin covering up their own frosted window with advertising placards, flashy but vapid come-ons ironically placed to block out the world. Down in the snow bank below, a haggard man pisses in the snow, glancing up at his peculiar neighbors and wondering, perhaps, who they think they are, closing themselves off like that. Don’t they know the world will already take care of that for them? Why seek isolation?

Because, as it turns out, there are some things worse than being alone. Such as joining together in brief, violent, frenetic couplings in which one person leeches the life out of another; or even worse, befriending and assisting this very leech, quenching your own isolation only at the expense of another’s life and happiness. These islands of humanity, floating in the impersonal sea of Blackeburg, both fear and desire human contact; they need it, but they know – or will discover – at what price this need can be fulfilled. Each of these individuals is as human as the next, but at least one is something else besides: a creature of the night, a blood-craving immortal, a murderous eunuch, a vampire. And this vampire, seemingly the most innocent of the four characters, that little girl who climbed out of the taxi, can only infiltrate your defenses if you let her enter your home – without permission, she will bleed from every orifice, so that even passivity breeds violence. Yet you must be careful before granting permission. It’s not enough to let just anyone in…





The symbolic power of vampires has always been pronounced in their mythology. From sexuality (Dracula), disease (Nosferatu), and death (Vampyr) to privileged ennui (Interview with a Vampire) and, especially in recent years, adolescent angst (“Buffy,” Twilight, this film) – the qualities of a vampire (blood-sucking, immortality, invisibility in mirrors, sensitivity to the sun, flight and levitation, and particularly the ability to shift between human and inhuman) lend themselves to rich variations upon a theme. Nonetheless, Let the Right One In is particularly compelling. Few films have so effectively integrated the mythos of the vampire into an everyday setting, and few stories have so singularly zeroed in on the legends’ common thread: deep isolation and loneliness pierced with the most violent sort of contact. The associations trigger both a yearning for companionship and a fear of the dangers – psychological or physical – such companionship can bring.

And clearly this theme has resonated with audiences. Let the Right One In began life as a bestselling Swedish novel by stand-up comedian and first-time author John Ajvide Lindqvist. It was then adapted for the screen by accomplished Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, and inevitably but respectfully remade in the U.S. by Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves (perhaps too respectfully – despite receiving surprising critical accolades, Let Me In has flopped at the box office). Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008) has become one of the most acclaimed films of the past ten years. Both Swedish and American adaptations are fairly faithful to the book’s central conceit (a bullied boy befriends a 12-year-old girl who happens to be a vampire) and even its narrative structure. Yet they differ in various ways from the original and from one another – and ultimately these variations point to some fundamental divergences.

In essence, the book is about loneliness as (ironically) a collective phenomenon – and one whose individual solutions inevitably harm others. Let Me In, on the other hand, is about loneliness through the eyes of one boy, while Let the Right One In strikes a path somewhere between these social and individualistic visions. Lindqvist’s book begins by describing the Blackeburg suburbs in which all of our protagonists live – it even sets the scene historically with an archly ironic passage documenting the lower middle class’ arrival amidst these towering housing blocs. As the author informs us, the only problem with this eager community was that it had no history – without roots, it was almost as if it didn’t even exist (something Oskar, the 12-year-old boy at the story’s center, will repeat to himself as a mantra at times: “I don’t exist, I don’t exist.”). A kind of existential alienation permeates the setting and the characters who inhabit it – but these individuals are not deadened by their sense of isolation and dislocation, they are bruised by it, and deeply vulnerable.



Though Oskar is clearly our narrative focalizer, Lindqvist frequently switches point of view between an ensemble. There’s Oskar’s family – his worried, weary mother, his alcoholic father good for a weekend visit but entirely undependable. There’s Tommy, an older friend of Oskar’s, who does come the closest to being deadened by his surroundings though even he proves vulnerable in the end – until then, he sniffs glue and plays pranks on his future stepfather, a straight-arrow Christian cop. Oskar’s bullies are not particularly sympathetic but we get a glimpse of even their human side – Jonny is even more fatherless than Oskar, and his big brother, a thug named Jimmy, is hardly the best influence. Finally there are the characters completely unrelated to Oskar, whose stories may very well take up as much of the book as his own – the crowd of middle-aged alcoholics and layabouts who appear useless at first glance but are shown to be as hurt, as human, as longing for companionship as anyone else in the book, perhaps more so. Among them, Lacke, an intelligent but moribund drinker, and Virginia, his on-and-off again lover, are the most important; in particular Lacke’s perspective is probably voiced with a frequency second only to Oskar’s.

Into this mix of lost souls, Lindqvist introduces a mysterious couple more fucked up than most – a young girl, Eli, and her mysterious companion, Hakan. As it turns out, Eli is a vampire, dependent on blood for two centuries; also, “she” is a castrated boy, stripped of her manhood, and eventually her adulthood, by a decadent noble in the 18th century. Hakan is a sensitive, withdrawn man, harboring his own secrets. A pedophile who was rescued from despondency by his peculiar guardian angel/demon, he now serves Eli by killing strangers and milking their blood so that she will not have to venture out and risk discovery herself. Hakan despises this task, but loves Eli too much to give it up, and when he’s captured he douses his face with acid to protect her identity. When she visits the hospital, he allows her to drink his blood, but he is not killed in time and so he becomes a zombie, roaming the countryside and eventually making his way back to their apartment, where he will be graphically dismembered by a freaked-out Tommy; meanwhile Eli (having infected Virginia, killed Lacke, and dispatched Oskar’s bullies) will flee with Oskar, though the nature of their future relationship – will he take Hakan’s place as a proxy killer? – is left to our imagination.

While more actively humanist than either movie, the book is also much heavier on the horror. It contains scenes of brutal violence and detailed gore, and on page the deviant sexuality is far more pronounced than anything onscreen (Eli’s castration – only hinted at in the Swedish film and avoided altogether in the American – is presented in graphic detail via flashback, while Hakan nearly seduces a toothless rent boy, masturbates before attacking one victim, and rapes Eli in the end). The entire zombie subplot, in which Hakan’s decaying, desiccated corpse, described in harrowing specificity, roams the countryside and is subject to a nationwide manhunt, is also axed – in both film versions, he dies after falling out of the hospital window. That deleted manhunt also points to something else missing from the more famous film version (though it occasionally reappears in Let Me In) – an attention to the wider social and historical context. All three interpretations of the tale take place in the early 1980s, and in Lindqvist’s telling, real headlines of the time (a Soviet submarine landing onshore) appear side by side with sensationalistic news coverage of Hakan’s killings – Oskar’s new friend is not only an enigmatic outsider in the book, she’s also indirectly a kind of celebrity (though the media’s emphasis is on Hakan, since Eli's existence is unknown).



The screenplay Let the Right One In, as often happens with book-to-film adaptations (in this case conducted by the author himself, though Alfredson seems to have played a strong role in shaping the material), pares down the subplots, narrows the thematic range, and focuses on the story’s central hook, here Oskar’s friendship with Eli. Though Alfredson allows the point of view to range (and, importantly, shoots in an “objective” fashion, favoring long takes and wide angles), he brings us closer to seeing Oskar’s world through his own eyes. There is no prologue setting the historical context of Blackeburg – its eerie artificiality and brooding minimalism speak for themselves, although devoid of a wider view they tend to be taken for granted (much as Oskar himself would take them). The cast of characters is dramatically winnowed down – no Tommy, no police stepfather, less of Oskar’s parents, hardly any background on the bullies…even Hakan becomes a relatively minor character, his perversions elided, his backstory left to our imagination. We even find out less about Eli – no 200-year-old flashback, and the castration element is only hinted at via a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nude shot (Lina Leandersson, who plays Eli, is a girl).

Lacke and Virginia are included but the pathos of their romance is muted by little screen time, lack of recourse to their inner lives, and – related to both – the more “stereotypical” nature of film representation. Peter Carlberg, who plays Lacke, looks villainous with his squinting eyes and perpetual grimace, so even as the screenplay tries to humanize him the appearance works against it. Virginia, played with little dialogue by Ika Nord, seems more like a generic floozy, though her suicidal request to open the blinds has some poignancy. Ultimately, while both characters are sympathetic (and grow in sympathy with repeat viewings and a reading of the book), one can watch their demises without really batting an eye. The movie gains a great deal in economy by streamlining the book’s storytelling (and the novel can certainly seem too long and indulgent at times), but it loses some of the empathetic spark which lends the book some of its complexity and makes its vampires-in-the-real-world conceit so compelling.

Nevertheless, the film succeeds wildly in the most important area, dramatizing the relationship between Oskar and Eli. Kare Hadebrant, while lacking the novelistic Oskar’s pathetic pudginess (why do they still tell him to “squeal like a pig” in the movie?) captures the lonely loser quality perfectly. His vaguely androgynous appearance – shy gestures, helmet of blonde hair, slender build – also nicely complements Eli’s gender ambiguity. As Eli, Leandersson is superb. The story poses a fascinating question: is Eli an old person trapped in a 12-year-old’s body, a perpetual 12-year-old, or something in between? Leandersson does a marvelous job spanning the various modes her role requires: old vs. young, male vs. female, human vs. monster. It’s a demanding job, but she – and, importantly, the make-up and costume designers as well – are up to it. Notice how after feasting on blood, she is not only cleaner, but more youthful, more feminine. When she first appears on the jungle gym, her stringy hair and baggy blouse mark her as threatening – but after that threat is fulfilled, she is the picture of cute little girl, hair combed, wearing a girly sweater as she sits down next to Oskar, who is startled by the shift.



Later, her appearance will shift between a grayish vampire sheen, an innocent-looking pre-adolescent expressiveness (nodding with naïve charm to a pop record), and an old, weary, barely glimpsed visage. We’re never sure which one is the real Eli. The vocals shifts too – from an animal growl, to a 12-year-old girl’s giggle, to a thick, pubescent boy’s petulant rage (apparently Leandersson’s whole performance was overdubbed, as Alfredson felt her voice was too high and childish). Actually, the entire sound design is handled with this level of subtlety – not only the cracking of skin and sucking of blood is heard in every sickening detail, but the crinkling of clothing, the hum of rooms, the inadequately muffled next-door conversations are given the elevated treatment. Even the turning of a Rubik’s Cube registers with the film’s sensitive ears – by ratcheting up and lavishing care upon the audio, Alfredson and his collaborators attune us ever more acutely to our environment, making it seem all the more real and connecting us even closer to Oskar’s heightened, undistanced perception.

Let Me In, as writer/director Matt Reeves explicitly intended, focuses even more dramatically on the boy hero (now renamed Owen). To this end, Reeves has eliminated the last semblance of Lacke (Virginia remains, but only as glimpsed, Peeping Tom-style, from Owen’s window; once she’s infected she goes straight to the hospital where she dies). Although a police detective is added to the cast – nameless, he may nonetheless evoke more sympathy than Lacke did in the Swedish film – Reeves mostly eliminates. Owen’s mother, only glimpsed in Let the Right One In, isn’t seen here at all; we hear her voice and see the back of her head, but her face is never shown. Owen’s father is only heard over the phone, while the bullies, already pretty much motiveless in the Swedish film, are even less sympathetic this time around (one bully, face in hands, is spared in the original’s final massacre; here everyone’s cut down).

Most dramatically, Reeves changes the shooting style, utilizing more close-ups and point-of-view shots than the original. The latter device is mostly successful, especially in an early Rear Window (and perhaps Dekalog) tribute which sees Owen spying on his neighbors through a telescope. But the emphasis on close-ups, coupled with relatively quick cuts and conventional framing, seems less to view the film through Owen’s eyes than to Americanize Alfredson’s eerily beautiful mise en scene. This takes its most unfortunate turn in the climax: whereas Alfredson lets the carnage unfold underwater, limiting our point of view by muffling the sound and allowing body parts to float lazily into the frame, Reeves cuts between several shots. He stays beneath the surface but without the long take, the grisly violence loses its effectiveness (the shot of the big brother’s head floating towards the camera is probably meant to simulate Owen’s point of view, but it seems so conventional compared to Alfredson’s chilling arrangement).



If Let Me In is slicker and at times more superficial than Let the Right One In, that’s to be expected; what’s a welcome surprise is how successful it is at evoking a sense of time and place, and at presenting the material in a visually compelling way (though given Cloverfield’s cleverness – the monster movie reconceived as home video – Reeves’ ingenuity need not be surprising). Relocating the film in Los Alamos is a brilliant stroke, and not only because of the historical connotations (Let Me In is more open to history than its predecessor, opening with a televised Reagan speech in which the president emphasizes the existence of evil in the world). The wintry New Mexico locale has just as much presence as the Scandinavian housing projects in the original – even if Reeves doesn't allow it as much room to breathe, the motel-like environs and snowy courtyards certainly permeate the atmosphere.

The cast is good, though as Owen, Kodi Smit-McPhee doesn’t go as deep – or isn’t allowed to go as deep – as Hadebrant; his simpering expressiveness is more iconic than nuanced. Chloe Moretz is the best thing in the movie as “Abby” (Eli has been fully feminized this time around): blonde and brooding, she manifests the confusion and hurt of a troubled teenager, alongside the forcefulness and wisdom of a much older person. Moretz doesn’t manage to straddle as much ground as Leandersson (Abby is never as childish nor as old as Eli) but it’s a very strong performance from a very promising actress. The new screenplay also inserts some compelling twists. In the book Hakan, here simply known as “The Father,” didn’t meet Eli until he was well into adulthood, but Let Me In shows us a picture of Abby and her companion when they were both children. This gesture exacerbates Abby's sense of “otherness,” makes Hakan/The Father seem more like a victim, and makes us concerned for Owen, who now explicitly runs the risk of following in the older man’s footsteps. It’s a very nice touch, one of the movie’s few improvements upon the original.

When I saw Let the Right One In, I was immediately struck by the perverse connection to Spielberg, suggested not only by the setting, but the story. Just as E.T. uses a supernatural phenomenon to explore loneliness and family fragmentation in a suburban setting, so Let the Right One In uses vampires instead of aliens to dress up similar themes, this time in a housing project (in both, the boy connects with otherworldly creatures through colorful consumer objects: in E.T., Reese's pieces, in Let the Right One In the Rubik’s Cube). The connection occurred to Reeves as well, who has de-emphasized adult figures and heightened Owen’s point of view to evoke that same sense of the world as seen through a young person’s eyes, both in its realistic and supernatural manifestations. Reeves has personal reasons for emphasizing this angle (like Lindqvist, Alfredson, and Owen/Oskar, who are all the same age, Reeves grew up a loner in the early 80s); however, it also coincides with a cultural trend.



Just as Let Me In’s visual approach reflects an American preoccupation with fragmented space and fast-paced action so its narrative reshaping reflects a more individualistic culture, one which tends to celebrate and privilege a singular point of view. Interestingly, the opening Reagan speech sets the film very consciously in a religious/post-religious context (on which it doesn’t quite deliver); while God is never mentioned in the Swedish film, Lindqvist’s book includes some light-hearted potshots at Bible-thumpers and antiseptic church communities (as well as some sincere, feverish prayer, though it’s agnostic on answers). Yet also present in the book is political small talk (one of Lacke’s drinking partners is a Communist sympathizer), social and historical portraiture, and a stinging critique of a hysterical and perpetually diverted media. In other words, Let the Right One In exists not only in a religious/post-religious context but also a Marxist/post-Marxist context, viewing the housing projects as icons of a well-intentioned social system gone wrong and the press as a Cold War-era hysteria machine.

This context is muted in the first film and completely absent from the remake – and with its absence, we lose the tragic sense of humanism infusing Lindqvist’s work, even in its pulpier passages. The world is more or less narrowed down to one boy’s isolated perspective, and we miss some of the suggestive richness evoked by the book’s multiple points of view. Still, Reeves does not entirely boil the narrative down to a narcissistic narrowness: there is a compassionate, painful moment in the end, where the policeman is being attacked and Owen must close the door on him, even as, panicked desperation in his eyes, the cop stretches out his hand, frantically clawing the air and pleading for his life. Also, Reeves presents the Father’s victims with more clarity and humanity than Hakan’s totally anonymous, faceless targets (in the book, unlike in either film, the victims are very young boys, adding a further degree of distaste and unease to the proceedings).

In the long run, while the book may focus on this more acutely, all three versions of the story display an unusually ambiguous attitude towards good and evil, suffering and destruction. What’s so compelling is not so much that the supposed villains are made sympathetic (this has been going on for years, and indeed is almost more of a cliché than the reverse) but that the victims of these antiheroes retain their humanity; the scenario is not a simplified role reversal, with good and bad switching hats, but a fleshing-out of all the individuals. There's an almost ethical concern for empathy and objectivity here. As Renoir once said in The Rules of the Game: “Everyone has their reasons.” Or put another way, perhaps vampires don't show up in mirrors because they themselves are already reflections - of us.



To discover more about the making of the book and the films, check out these interviews with the writer of Let the Right One In, the director of Let the Right One In, and the writer/director of Let Me In.

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