Let the Right One In opens Friday in select theaters
Let the Right One In, a precious Swedish vampire movie directed by Tomas Alfredson, is a critical success and an art house hit, being met with the kind of hushed awe with which the movie regards itself. In the true measure of its stateside appeal, an American remake is reportedly in the works.
Bookended by shots of falling snow, Right One seems to take place in a snow globe, just as still, just as quiet, its compositions just as stiff, with plastic figures arranged in stock situations. Lingering on his neatly arranged setups, rarely moving the camera, Alfredson has created the illusion of something contemplative—profound, even. But his film uses the metaphor-ready vampire template to tell a shopworn story about a bullied kid who finds refuge with another outcast. Call it backlash if you like, but I think Let the Right One In is a phony film.
It takes place in a small town, following the characters of Oskar—a shy, bullied preteen—and his new next door neighbor, Eli—a well-meaning, standoffish vampire girl. As Oskar's situation at school grows worse, he finds counsel and much-needed affection in a romance with Eli, who takes refuge with Oskar when her vampirism gets her into some tricky spots around town. Eli's narrative strand is the much stronger one, mostly because of actress Lena Leandersson, who's doing everything she can with her vague role (think Roseanne's Darlene Connor with her chin covered in blood), and because her attacks on the locals give the movie a little excitement. Unfortunately, Alfredson doesn't deign to get his hands dirty in these scenes, favoring composition over kinetics. There are some tense moments here and there, but the characters being attacked are so lifeless that you wonder if Eli could really get any nourishment from their blood.
Oskar is assigned problems instead of traits: other boys push him around and his parents are well-intentioned but emotionally absent. It's impossible not to feel sorry for this mealy little kid, but Alfredson only creates a negative kind of characterization, one that comes more from what's done to Oskar than what Oskar does. The feeling of pity is a queasy one, and Alfredson capitalizes on his audience's need for relief by teasing out Oskar's awkward courtship of Eli. This manipulative maneuver is where the movie finds its narrative thrust and its emotional center. The relationship between Eli and her non-vampire father, which is much more intriguing—he fetches blood for her, kills for her, loves her but is also probably terrified of her—is never investigated.
Judging from the knowing giggles in the audience, Right One makes cute work of stringing together bits of vampire trivia: a scene of little Eli reminding her father that she can't enter his room without him first inviting her sets the stage for Eli's bloody demonstration when Oskar asks her what happens if a vampire crosses a threshold without an invitation.
Conversations between Eli and Oskar are bland and wooden, which is too bad for a movie that centers on their relationship. Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist know they've got to get these kids talking about something other than what it's like to be a vampire, so they have Oskar lend Eli his Rubik's Cube; she returns it the next day, having solved it (is being good at puzzles part of vampire lore?); then she teaches him how she did it. Alfredson doesn't show us how she solves it, presumably because he doesn't know. The Cube is a clumsy crutch, but he needs it: He can't get Eli and Oskar into any kind of groove, even one that acknowledges how uncomfortable adolescent courtship is. In fact, the director himself seems the most uncomfortable in these scenes, as if he knows he needs some emotional bits to justify his stately, high-minded direction, and this obligatory cartilage is supposed to do the trick.
A story needn't be completely new in order to be told—loads of good films have come from material plenty more played-out than this vampire teen romance. But in his treatment, Alfredson betrays a self-seriousness that the material can't support. He's so busy being stately and restrained that he may have forgotten how much fun he (and we) could have had by getting a little trashier. Instead, he shoots to be as pure as the blanket of white snow that fills almost every frame of his film. In the process he's made something quiet and clinical, afraid to speak louder than a whisper for fear that he might distract from his movie's immaculate imagery.