Let the right one in

Last night we went to see the wonderful Swedish independent film “Let the Right One In”. I don’t know how to talk about this film properly to anyone who has not yet seen it, so….

(1) If you haven’t seen this film, please stop reading right now, go out immediately and watch it, and then feel free to proceed on to the rest of this post.

(2) If you have already seen the film, by all means keep reading.

 


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OK, I assume that if you’ve gotten this far you’ve seen the film, and that I won’t be spoiling it for you.

What struck me about this film is that it has the form of one tale and the content of a completely different one. On the surface it’s a tender coming-of-age romance, the story of a tentative adolescent relationship growing, like a delicate rose-petal, in the midst of a vampire movie. The sort of sweet and delicate romance between twelve year olds that we’ve seen before in “My Life as a Dog”, “A Little Romance” and similar films.

But if you really think about what you’ve seen, it’s not that at all. In fact it’s nothing like that. What’s actually going on is that an inhuman monster – powerful, ancient and bloodthirsty – is in need of a new human slave, its previous slave having reached the end of his useful lifespan. This monster sets about seducing a confused young boy, playing on the boy’s loneliness, nascent sexuality and innocent need for connection, into becoming its next slave. He should be good for another fifty years or so – then the monster will get another one.

This is not a new concept in vampire stories. “The Hunger” showed a similar master/slave dynamic between the two vampires, and of course this was also the defining relationship between Dracula and Renfield.

What’s intriguing about “Let the Right One In” is that this is all shown entirely from the point of view of the innocent twelve year old boy who is being drawn in by the monster to a life of slavery. We the audience find ourselves idealizing the monster just as he does – we are taken through the boy’s process of falling in love – even when (as it must) the monster reveals its true horrifying nature.

Objectively we are given all of the information we need to understand what is really happening here. We are shown, in painful detail, the tragic fate of the monster’s previous servant, and we are shown the monster’s complete lack of compunction about killing one innocent victim after another.

And yet at the end, when the boy has walked away from everyone he loves to enter into a lifetime of servitude to a ruthless and bloodthirsty vampire, the audience feels as though it has reached the happy ending of a romance. This in spite of the fact that the penultimate scene contains the single most bloodthirsty depiction of horror and atrocity against children that many of us will ever see on-screen. The film is so effective in controlling our point of view that by the time it sees these children brutally murdered, the audience is actually rooting for their death.

The film plays various tricks to keep us inside the boy’s head. For example, all of the adults around him are portrayed as ridiculous and/or self-absorbed fools. There is not a single adult he can turn to help counter the illusory reality that the monster is weaving around him.

And of course the title of the film is a brilliant reversal. Because this is a vampire film, we assume that the title is referring to the need to invite in only the right vampire – since a vampire cannot enter your home without being invited. But in fact it’s the other way around – the vampire has clearly been searching a long time for the right servant to replace the one it is about to discard. In the end, we see that it is the boy – merely the latest in a series of human servants the vampire will keep around for as long as they are useful – who is being let in.

It’s amazing what you can do when you know how to play around with genre expectations.

10 Responses to “Let the right one in”

  1. Buffalo says:

    Did we see the same movie? Your interpretations is interesting but for me it’s really a honest love story.

    First of all, Hakan, Eli’s helper, feels to be not very old in his job. He is clumsy and Eli’s reactions when he fails feels as if their agreement wasn’t that old. But when I finally thought Eli’s love for Oscar was true was when Eli sat alone in the apartment, trying to communicate with Oscar in Morse code through the wall, but realised he wasn’t there. So heartbreaking.

    I think Eli for the first time in her/his long life finally could let the right one in. Someone who accepts Eli for what s/he is.

    Really different way to see it but none of us are alone. Amazing movie!

  2. admin says:

    Yes, I think either interpretation is reasonable. Since we can’t see inside of Eli’s mind, we can’t tell for sure. I was trying to give an interpretation that I felt was underrepresented in all the commentary about this wonderful film.

    So many different meanings there to take away from the same experience. That’s one sign of good literature!

  3. KH says:

    First of all I think your reflections were spot on. I admit it took me a bit to get where you did. I suppose its the cynical kid in me that asks just how calculating Eli really is. You get the feeling that Eli was some poor street kid when she got turned. Certainly her motives seem calculated when shown against the larger plot and perhaps they are. However, I think Oskar is perfectly capable of realizing any and all of Eli’s motives and as such makes a clear and concise decision. He looks at his Father ignoring the few moments that they get together and his mother oblivious to all the things going on around him and makes a choice. Lets not forget that Oskar is playing outside at night, in the cold, more than a few days in a row. Not exactly parents of the year here. When its all said and done I cant think that Oskar 20 years older would have made a different decision. To me its his strength that pulls Eli to him not his weakness.

  4. admin says:

    Yes KH, I like your compromise. There is no way to know what really goes on in the head of a creature like Eli, but it is indeed reasonable to conjecture that Oskar sees what he is getting into, and goes into it willingly. Whatever Eli’s motivations, this is the first time Oskar has gotten real acknowledgement from anybody. In that sense, whatever the dangers, he may be making a calculated and clear-eyed choice, not a naive choice.

  5. lira2012 says:

    Ken, i have the same take as you on this and it is interesting to me that most of the critics missed it. The only mitigating thought that i have here is that part of Eli seems genuinely sad about her compulsion to ruin another child. Having said that, there is no question in my mind that she targeted, hunted and willfully seduced Oskar who will end up getting discarded.

  6. Ramon says:

    After seeing this wonderful movie I bought the book. The book explains a lot what the movie leaves up very effectively in a cloud of mysticism.
    But just watching the movie I did certainly not come to the conclusions you do. :)
    Reading the book actually confirms that Eli was very very very lonely, Oscar as well was afflicted by lonelyness. Kindred spirits of sorts.
    Eli saw Oscar as food initially, but Oscar made an inadvert gesture of affection towards Eli which changed all. In the end Eli truly and madly loves Oscar.
    Oscar is not the next Hakan, he might very well become a sort of helper but Eli did not choose him as such. For the first time in 200 years Eli has a true friend.

    I love the movie. I love the book.
    This is by far the best Vampire movie ever.

  7. admin says:

    Ah, that makes sense, and it shows an interesting difference between a book and a movie. A novel can take you directly inside the thoughts of a character, whereas a film show those thoughts from the outside – the very ambiguity of characters and their true intentions can be part of the magic of cinema.

    It’s nice to know Eli finally has a real friend. :-)

  8. Timothy Walsh says:

    If we want to create an ending different from the one imagined by the author, here is one that is bound to please fans of the movie. Instead of a castrated boy, like in the book, we’ll make Eli a girl who was de-sexed to prevent monthly blood loss, which would be unhealthy for a vampire. This means that Oskar can only kiss a cuddle with her, but he loves her so much that he prefers that to doing “anything special” with anyone else. And then we’ll have Oskar serve as her helper, not by killing people for their blood but by buying blood from people, with Eli’s money and treasures until he graduates from middle school and high school and gets a job, and then with his salary. He lives with her until he dies of old age, and then she drinks his blood to tide her over until she finds a replacement who already has a job. And neither Eli nor any of her subsequent boyfriends ever kills anyone again.

  9. RW says:

    There is an assumption by some that Hakan was once where Oskar is now, and while conclusions from watching the movie can lead one to that, the truth is that Hakan started helping Eli when he was an adult (he is a pedophile). Like Ramon, I immediately bought the book after watching the movie to get more answers, it definately helps although I am not done reading yet. If loved the movie, you definately need to read the book, it is just as captivating.

  10. MS says:

    I agree with Ken after watching the first 50 or so minutes of the movie.
    I will watch the 2nd half in a bit. The Hakan character clearing loved Eli and
    not only did she not care about him but she made sure she fed off him before she attempted to destroy him.
    I think she has little to no shred of humanity left in her. She is setting up Oskar to be the next Hakan. It is possible Hakan had been with her for like 50 years and he couldn’t take the killing anymore and wanted to be caught. Which is why he appeared so incompetent.

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