Two GREAT 2008 films in a row? Just a month ago, I thought it would be impossible. Even with Vicky Christina Barcelona under my belt, the rest of the year seemed dismal. There were not many interesting Hollywood films on the horizon, and even among the few I was anticipating, several were moved to a 2009 release, or even were simply disappointing. It seems I was searching in the wrong places however, as film beyond the Atlantic have been extremely strong. Five films have stood out for me as being above the rest, only two of them American, and both are products of well seasoned directors (Allen and Demme), the former working in Spain, the latter on a visibly low budget.
The latest entry in the “great cinema” category of 2008 is the Swedish horror, Let the Right One In. I had unfortunately missed this at Montreal’s own Fantasia film festival, where several of my friends declared it one of the year’s more interesting films. They weren’t kidding, and the word of mouth must have got around, because it’s not everyday you see a full house (even on cheapo Tuesday) at the AMC Forum. The last time I remember being at a full house at the Forum (that wasn’t a pixar) was back in 2006, when I saw The New World, and by the end of the film, more than half the patrons had walked out! I think this was a case of misled audience than anything else though, I remember the trailers for the film playing up the war element, and ignoring Malick’s signature and sometimes difficult style. No one walked out of Let the Right One In though, there wasn’t even that uncomfortable restlessness that most films seem to insight in their audience; there was just quiet (except the one cell phone that went off).
Let the Right One in is one of the more compelling entries in the vampire mythos in a while, using the pretense of fantasy to explore relationships, morbidity, and aggression. The film is purposefully ambiguous and a slackened pace allows for more focus on the budding friendship between the protagonist and the young vampire who moves in next door. There intimacy is startling, in some ways off-putting because of their youth, and though their relationship remains chaste, there is an undeniable sexual frustration that seems to manifest itself through bloodshed. Both have a need for violence, one as a means of survival, the other out of desire for revenge. The bullying the protagonist suffers in a way, is what softens him for being understanding towards Eli. His desire for a friend and his quietness perfect for her, and his incredible anger, allows him to be all the more sympathetic to her situation. When, and if, he’s disgusted by her nature, it’s short lived. If anything, she opens her eyes to the true brutality of his desires; the reality of violence and death. It frightens him, but there is also a strange sense that his desires are justified. Eli seems to say at one point, that her murders are motivated only by need, and implies, somehow, without judging that his are not quite “right”. Though, she urges him to act back, a tooth for tooth, and promises that if that doesn’t stop them, she will help. At this point, he is completely unaware what she is truly capable of. Even though Eli is much older than she looks, she seems to hold the same naïve and innocent understanding of justice as Oskar. Making the eventual “settling of the score”, disturbing rather than vindicating.
The nature of the friendship between Oskar and Eli seems to be pushing towards a sort of taboo, using one character who is just on the brink of a sexual awakening, with another who, though “twelve”, has clearly been initiated or initiating sexual relationships. I don’t want to spoil a moment, but there is a particular scene, it’s even more of a shot, that is mysterious and ambiguous that opens more questions than it answers. I’ve discussed it with Polar Bear, who has kindly revealed the “meaning” ,at least in part , of this moment, but again, it serves only to open up an entirely new set of questions regarding sex and Eli’s past. The film is purposefully ambiguous and cryptic, and though many films fall into the traps of becoming too muddle and biting off more than they can chew, somehow this film succeeds at being simply piercing, for lack of a better word.
Though the film works less for traditional scares and suspense, there is enough disturbing and unexpected material to make the audience jump. Most are, as I mentioned earlier, because of a sort of twisted innocence and it’s inevitable cruelty. The violence and the gore is often painful, though there is often a lack of empathy for the victims. We are hit by the terror of their death, but there is little concern for their body, or inevitable death. It’s moments like when Oskar is beaten with a switch, or Eli “bleeds” that are the most painful emotionally and viscerally. Oskar’s obsession with murder and violence, seems to me, to be a reflection on his alienation and loneliness. Perhaps I’m drawing parallels that are not there, but it makes me think of the unfortunate rise in school shootings in Scandinavian countries in the past few years. I don’t think there is an attempt to rationalize or point fingers, but reveals an uncomfortable malaise in youth, and a detached adult populace who is unaware and ignorant of the lives of their children. They fail to see what is right in front of them, unable to discern the budding violence and aggression, blind to bullying and unable to tell truth from lie. This disconnect seems to make the bond Eli and Oskar have seem even stronger.
Winding down my thoughts, I’m partial to winter as the setting for horror or films exploring issues of intimacy and human “coldness”. It’s probably why Black Christmas is my favorite horror, and it certainly works in this film’s favour. It’s a film that gets better the more I think about it, and leaves me aching to see it again. Instead of dishing out the cash to see Twilight, see this instead!
*Thanks to Jedimoonshine on Rottentomatoes who I pilfered these beautiful screens from.