Let Me In
Directed by Matt Reeves
Screenplay by Matt Reeves and John Ajvide Lindqvist
Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen
Chloë Grace Moretz as Abby
Richard Jenkins as The Father
Cara Buono as Owen’s Mother
Embrace the monster, baby.
Legendary horror studio Hammer Films is back from the dead and going strong. After many dormant years, the British motion picture company that made stars of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is back in the business of feature films. Fittingly, one of its first major projects is a vampire film, though not the same sort they used to make. A remake of the Swedish novel and film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In), Hammer’s Let Me In is a touching and rather sad tale of how a brutal world makes monsters of ordinary people.
Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a delicate, sensitive kid who has been forced, by the neglect of his parents and the savage bullying of his peers, to withdraw into his own eccentric little world. His extreme loneliness makes his whole life rather painful and scary. He needs love and attention, as soon as possible and wherever he can find it.
Say hello to the new neighbors – Abby (Chloë Moretz, lately of Kick-Ass and 500 Days Of Summer) and an older man, ostensibly her father (Richard Jenkins, in possibly his boldest role to date). Abby walks around barefoot in the snow, speaks inscrutably about her past, and is given to jarring fits behind the thin walls of her apartment. Nonetheless, she gradually befriends the lonesome Owen through nightly encounters in the apartment courtyard. Meanwhile, ”Dad” ventures out at night, and we soon learn that he is some variety of serial killer. At least, it appears that way, though he clearly does not relish the work. He seems to be compelled by a force other than himself, which demands blood and lots of it. Could this pertain in some way to his troubled relationship with the little girl he lives with? Nahh…
The tone of the film’s first act is extremely brutal and frightening. It may be too great a turn-off to sensitive viewers, but it will certainly thrill and chill those with the proper constitution. Every character seems to have major social and emotional problems, and not one of them seems to be the least bit happy. Once the setup has played out, the movie takes a more romantic turn. As Owen discovers the startling and horrible truth about his neighbors, he and Abby develop a curious friendship. In helping him to get a handle on his life, Abby advises him to flirt dangerously with his potential for violence. In the end there may be no way to stand up for himself other than giving way to the monster inside. At the same time, they share an affection which both of them desperately need. Is it mutual love, or a seduction necessary to prolong the life cycle of a monster? A little of both, presumably, but a lovely air of mystery hangs around their relationship. The only sure thing is that for Owen, life’s moral choices are going to get harder and harder.
As the bond between Owen and Abby grows, the film takes time to flesh out the other major players as well. It takes some time to establish, but this film does not deal in stock characters. Even the murderers and bullies have reasons for the way they are. Richard Jenkins as the ”father” is particularly tragic once you understand his predicament. Even the school bully is given subtle motivation for his cowardly and relentless torture of young Owen. These people have been driven to acts of monstrosity by extremely sad lives. This neither excuses what they do, nor changes the dire and appropriate consequences they have coming to them, but the perspective gradually transforms the movie from a mean little slasher to a deeply tragic drama. In addition to presenting adversity against which he must rise, the behavior of these characters is a foreboding picture of what Owen, also a sad and lonely person, risks becoming if he is not careful.
I will briefly address the movie as a remake, but have tried to avoid constant comparisons between the original and the remake. Too much of that kind of analysis is a disservice to the new movie, which stands well on its own. There was no particular reason to remake so new or well-executed a film as Let The Right One, but as long as it has been done, at least it has been done competently. There is no substantial difference in plot between the new film and the original. The distinctions are in the finer points of presentation. The vampire character is more overtly monstrous in Let Me In, and the filmmakers fell prey to some out-of-place computer effects in the attack scenes. It may suit Peter Jackson’s Gollum, but it’s not right for this kind of movie monster. Still, mild over-Hollywooding here and there does not slow this picture down much. For the most part, there is an almost elegant sense of restraint in depicting the most horrific moments. For the most part. Be warned that the movie saves up a few buckets of blood for key scenes, and when the shocks come, they come hard. The trick is to avoid exploiting every single opportunity for graphic violence, and happily the makers of the film seem to understand that. For every violent act fully presented onscreen, there are at least two more that cut away just before the big splat. In addition, the filmmakers know a thing or two about suspense. When something dangerous lurks in a dark corner or the backseat of a car, the camera takes its time, building tension to excruciating levels before an appropriately hideous payoff.
Let Me In has great style, enhancing mood with clever photography and thoughtful pacing. With hardly a word of dialogue, Owen’s miserable world unfolds clearly in his first few scenes. With careful framing and focus, we understand that he is badly disconnected from the outside world. He has a mother, but she hardly appears onscreen. She is a hovering ghost in his life, and his father is no more than an occasional voice on the telephone. Aside from the key figures in the story, outside characters, especially adults, appear hazily in the film’s peripheral vision. Owen and Abby are mostly on their own in this world, which explains why they might be drawn to one another.
This is heavy stuff, and child actors are not always up to it. Fortunately, these kids are. Kodi Smit-McPhee faces the difficult task of portraying a kid so pathetic that his everyday life is difficult to watch. However, his character deepens into a thoughtful caring person who, though damaged, may have a hopeful future ahead of him. Then again, he might be drawn into a world of misery and doom, but any change of scenery could be helpful. Chloë Moretz has the rare privilege of playing a monster with serious depth, and she pulls it off nicely. This has been a good year for the actress, and she is going to keep getting offered interesting roles as long as she keeps this up. Most child actors can manage precocious wisecracks, which is why they become child actors. Not as many can brood convincingly. I was one of those holdouts who refused to give Dakota Fanning any credit merely for being cute as a button. It took sixteen years and The Runaways to convince me she had real acting chops. So Dakota, I’m sorry. Meanwhile, I was worried that Chloë Moretz would suffer major letdown once the novelty of Kick-Ass wore off. I am no longer worried. I gladly tip my hat to her nuanced performance in the demanding role of vampire Abby.
Let Me In makes a few style choices that don’t quite deliver, and changes tone too abruptly at times, but the movie’s high points do a good job of smoothing its rough corners. The film requires a bit of patience and a certain strength of stomach, but for those in the mood for a good scare and a morally complex drama, it would be a good idea to hit the theater this weekend. Just creep on up to the box office and whisper, ”Let Me In.”