Saturday, May 2, 2009
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) A Film by Tomas Alfredson (2008)
Vampire films of merit come few and far between, which is why Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In - a work that fuses horror and social realism to engrossing extent - comes as such a surprise. Moreover, in an age where horror cinema has dwindled into empty, gratuitous offerings of torture porn and shock-for-shock's sake ghost stories (no less, the lame cult phenomenon of Twilight), its intelligence should rightfully be highly praised. The film is not a vehicle to explore the spectacle of vampirism; instead, the inclusion of vampire elements helps to add a morally complex dimension to the young relationship between the film's two main characters: Oskar, an inferior, fantasizing 12-year old outcast, and Eli, the mysterious vampire Oskar falls for, unknowing - at least at first - of her bizarre background.
Eli is an enigmatic character throughout, both due to the fact that she is constantly verging on uncontrollable violence and because Alfredson implicitly hints towards her androgynous nature. She repeatedly tells Oskar she is not a girl, which at once can be taken in light of her inhumanity, but following the brief insertion of a shot of her castrated genital region, a gender context is implanted in her statement as well. As displayed in the opening scene, Oskar is a boy who channels the anger he feels from being bullied into vicarious acts - a Travis Bickle of sorts. "Squeal like a pig," he proclaims over a black screen in the beginning before we see him thrusting a knife through the air maliciously. In this light, Eli is the mirror of Oskar: violent, brave, and intimidating. She stirs up courage in Oskar, encouraging him to be proactive when dealing with the bullies at school and henceforth brings about his maturation, which is as much of a negative one as it is positive. The film culminates with Oskar traveling to freedom with Eli; in his mind he is a victim of love but is just as much a product of the seduction of a vampire, destined to become the kind of ruthless supplier of blood that Eli's father was in the film.
Let the Right One In's "love story" however, is by turns complex (as illustrated above) and banal. The two forge their first emotional connection through the ultimate outcast staple: the Rubik's cube. Oskar plays with the device in his free time but cannot solve it, but when he offers it to Eli, she has a curious ability to finish it overnight. This exchange felt familiar and somewhat grounded in the romance and coming-of-age genres, detracting from the relationship that otherwise felt like it was evolving supernaturally. Interestingly, Alfredson keeps most of the violence offscreen or at a distance so that when Eli does make an attack or her father collects the blood of a victim, it is genuinely terrifying. He refuses to romanticize the violence, reflecting how it is a necessary burden for Eli rather than a footloose pleasure.
For the most part, CGI is used tastefully, a method of adding a subtly alien quality to Eli's movements. The film is most frustrating when it is not, such as during a scene when a newly cursed survivor victim of Eli's attack is bombarded by digitized cats and subsequently engulfed in flames as a response to daylight. One of the finest achievements of the film is its pacing and visual focus. The art direction is stellar, an exacting milieu of snow and blood, whereas the camerawork reflects the slow pace of life in the Swedish village the film is set in. Rarely does a vampire film extract so much fear out of calculated ambiance instead of viscera, and it is one of the best films of 2008 as a result.
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Having watched the film twice, two distinct observations come to mind. First, I'm not convinced Eli is a girl. Before I continue, know that I'm not advocating or angling for a specific "reading" of the film as a result of my homosexuality. My gender fence sitting is the result of the story's decision to give more indications of male as opposed to female. The name alone, "Eli", indicates a male gender. Eli's repeated comments that he is not, in fact, a girl. Finally, the insert of the mutilated genitals only adds to my theory that Eli was, at one point, a boy. No surprise, the upcoming American version makes no bones about Eli's gender by applying an explicitly female name: Abby.
Second, (and please correct me if I'm wrong), I don't recall Eli ever specifically referring to the man as her father. For a few moments I considered the option that the old man was a pervert of some sort, ready and willing to do anything asked of Eli. My preferred interpretation, however, stems from the notion that the old man was, many years before, Oskar (metaphorically speaking). Eli and the old man met long before he was an old man. From that interaction, love and devotion flourished. I don't think it's a coincidence that Oskar and Eli's relationship truly flourished once the old man died. Not only did Eli need a new lover, but he/she needed a new caretaker as well. The end of the film suggests that Oskar is ready to fill the role for as long as needed.
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