In honor of Halloween, a day of vampires and naughty misdeeds, I sat down to watch Let the Right One In again — a movie tied to a naughty misdeed of my own. My offending act of immoral behavior? Back when it was released, one year ago, on Oct. 24, 2008, I wrote a review that trashed this pensive and brooding Swedish vampire movie. I called it “arty,” I said that it wasn’t “coherent,” and I accused the hero — a 12-year-old blond boy in a wintry Stockholm suburb who befriends the vampire child next door — of “skulk[ing] through the movie in a blank-faced torpor.”
Few words that I have ever written have provoked such a collective and righteously resentful howl of protest. In the year since I panned Let the Right One In, I have been attacked for this review all over the Web (“Owen Gleiberman should apologize,” “He never actually saw this movie. At least not sober,” “Owen Gleiberman: Welcome to Contraryville, population 1,” “Worst…review…ever!”), and let me say from the outset: I have felt the bitter sting of your wrath.
From virtually the moment this review appeared, there were two aspects of it that I regretted. One is that I made a small factual mistake (more on that in a moment); the other is that I had only 90 words to work with. A longer review, I have no doubt, would have pissed people off as well, but on this particular week I could only get space in the magazine to do it as a capsule, and in hindsight — given the acclaim that the movie has inspired — that wasn’t a great act of planning. The shorthand, kick-in-the-ribs style that capsule writing often engenders probably made my dismissal sound more curtly hostile than I would have liked it to.
At the same time, let’s get a little perspective here. In the last 20 years, most of the movies that, to me, can be counted as landmark works of art — Boogie Nights, Far From Heaven, Saving Private Ryan, Chuck & Buck, Titanic, Moulin Rouge!, Lilya 4-Ever, Natural Born Killers, Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac — have inspired critical responses that are all over the map. And that’s exactly as it should be. Do we really want lockstop uniformity? No movie should exist in a place where it’s beyond having detractors. Yet such is the cult of Let the Right One In that the very idea of dismissing this movie is somehow an act of nerve-smashing insensitivity.
All of which leads me to say: I did watch the movie again. I really, truly gave it a shot, and my gut-bucket honest reaction is: I still don’t like it. But let me now take a few more than 90 words to say why.
Let the Right One In is the story of two characters, both 12 years old: Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a long-haired, doleful blond moppet who looks like a more mature version of Danny Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining, and Eli (Lina Leandersson), the dark-haired vampire with the saturnine smirk who suggests Sara Gilbert as the world’s most androgynous hobbit. The factual mistake I made in my review was saying that Hakan (Per Ragnar), the dour, lumpish middle-aged man who Eli lives with — the one who goes out and kills people so that he can give her their blood — is her father. Mea culpa and all that, but watching the movie a second time, I at least understood my confusion: Yes, Hakan is her “guardian” (or something), but their relationship is not well drawn. It’s sketchy and obtuse, undernourished and underplayed. That, however, is the whole glum, murky, too-serious-for-words style of Let the Right One In. That’s what gives it its languid Nordic chic.
The movie has been lavishly praised for its visual “beauty,” but when I think about the look of a film, what matters isn’t just the individual images — in this case, many prosaic shots of crystalline sun and snow. It’s the way that they flow into each other, the way that images become narrative. Let the Right One In, however, has the logy stop-and-go rhythms, the surface aestheticism and underlying visual drabness of a movie that was perfunctorily scripted and then patched together in the editing room.
The scenes between Oskar and Eli lack a dramatic pulse, but that somehow becomes part of the film’s mopy romantic texture. Let the Right One In is, in essence, a teasingly angelic prepubescent homoerotic love story. Its a kiddified Crying Game that places a halo of sanctimony around a “forbidden” friendship. The key scene isn’t any of those arbitrary blood-lettings. It’s when Oskar and Eli are lying in the same bed, and Oskar asks, “Do you want to be my girlfriend?”
Eli replies, “Oskar, I’m not a girl.”
And Oskar, without missing a beat, says: “Oh. But do you want to go steady or not?”
Aw, how sweet! Here’s a 12-year-old boy who has just been told that the girl he’s entranced with isn’t a girl. His utter lack of reaction rings totally false, but more than that, it’s false because it’s pious — and, in an odd way, uninteresting. (Imagine if Stephen Rea had responded to the “reveal” scene in The Crying Game by saying, “Hmmm. So where do you wanna eat?”) In the saintly shrug of a boy who doesn’t give a fig if the girl he loves is actually a girl or not (or a vampire, either), this moment literalizes, and sentimentalizes, one of the most enduringly facile of all trendy academic ideas: that gender is just a “construct,” and therefore far less important than it seems.
Where, I want to know, in all this girl/boy, normal/vampire, angel/demon spiritual diddling is the heat, the confusion, even the anguish of young love? In its glossier way, Twilight — both the book and the movie — got at those emotions. But one reason for Let the Right One In‘s cachet is that it was seen, last year, as the anti-Twilight, the “cool” indie young-love vampire movie to celebrate over the overhyped corporate young-love vampire movie. On a second viewing, what struck me is that for all the film’s gooey, oozy “sensitivity,” there’s a nagging and obtuse heartlessness to it. The homicide scenes aren’t staged so that we have a whisper of sympathy for the victims — who, after all, haven’t done anything — and the kids who torment Oskar at school are such overwrought bullies that the very crudeness of the characterizations seems like the filmmaker’s own projected form of vengeance.
And, sorry, I still think it lacks coherence. Why do a bunch of cats turn demonic and attack a woman who has been attacked by a vampire? And why the sudden, excessive carnage of the swimming-pool massacre? Perhaps scenes like these don’t fit some viewers’ definitions of “random arty blood thrills,” but they certainly do mine. Let the Right One In, however, may be the kind of cult film whose bedazzled fans regard it as beyond criticism. I’m sorry, but that’s sucking the life out of what you love.