Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a bullied twelve-year-old Swedish boy who lives in a mostly quiet Stockholm suburb. Alienated and disconnected from both his peers and the adults in his life, Oskar is shy, introverted and sensitive. Pensively, however, he pursues an unsettling hobby of cutting out newspaper stories about grisly killings and criminal acts of violence. This pubescent finds himself the routine victim of schoolyard tormentors who see in his emotional delicacy sheer weakness. His countenance as white as a sheet, his long, straight blonde hair and features making him look like an albino Scandinavian child of the snow, he finds himself alone in that bitterly cold snow. He lives a quiet schoolboy life teeming with little indignities and mundane angst-ridden horrors. He amusedly mocks his mother, mouthing his single parent's words one room removed from her. It is that kind of universal act that invites the viewer the blizzard of soothing darkness that is Let the Right One In.
Constructed as a patient, reserved character study before all else, this Swedish picture directed by Tomas Alfredson, adapted from the bestselling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is at its best when it commendably balances the subtly (thematically and visually) depressive commonplace milieu so methodically formed and the inevitable sinking sensation brought on by the dread of supernatural horror. A tale nominally about vampirism, the film operates most cohesively as an arresting blend of these supposedly divergent threads: of the everyday, smothering horror Oskar endures and the fantastical splash of morbid but benign (to Oskar) inhuman horror. Let the Right One In is not a horror film per se, though it does carry within its bloodstream the occasional frights, darkly-lit sequences of pulse-pounding terror and memorable special-effects-aiding moments belonging to the macabre.
Though an eerie patina makes the entire film slightly askew with disorientingly long, steady and lyrical camera takes and compositions, that benign-to-Oskar force is treated as a viable love for him in Eli, a similarly pale girl, or a vampire, or something (Lina Leandersson in an uncanny performance) that acts as a kind of almost asomatous surrogate, a cosmically righteous avenger for Oskar. Contrasting with the fare Oskar, Eli's eyes are piercingly dark as though they belonged to a feline and her hair is a silky raven. In many ways, however, Eli is simply the darkest most extension of Oskar's conscious, which is awkwardly finding expression in the make-believe of stabbing a tree with a stick while demanding it “squeal like a pig,” a command Oskar is given by the tireless group of bullies. As he is fascinated by an open-ended serial killer investigation in the area, snipping out news stories about it and other dastardly deeds with a pair of scissors, the violence he suffers serves as an occasionally bloody foray into the purposeless awfulness of oppression and torture. Lashed about the legs and finally face by those who belittle his very existence, he explains away the cut on his cheek to his mother with all of the weariness and embarrassment of an especially meek boy struggling with his own ill-advised pacifism. In the late darkness of the wintry night, however, he pretends that the tree outside the building in which he lives is an evildoer he can vanquish and make submit with squealing. It is important to note that this is when Eli appears, as Oskar has most positively transmitted his own anguish into the possibility of retribution.
After impressing the impressionable Oskar with her aptitude for Rubik's cubes, and by extension wordlessly promising to gift him with a similar kind of order in his life that has been missing, Eli instructs Oskar that he must fight back against those who punish him. Later, Eli, after being fully revealed to be the creature of the night that stalks the sleepy suburb, will note the moment at which time she entered Oskar's world, as he poked the tree with his stick, instructing it to “squeal like a pig.” Eli notes that she kills because she must, in order to survive, whereas Oskar's flirting with the darkness from which she literally and figuratively flies and lunges comes from desire. Friendship as wish-fulfillment is a pervasive theme, especially in stories about children, and Let the Right One In is an altogether interesting twist on this common construction.
With Eli's macabre accents of bloodlust and particularly unnerving superstitiousness, such as having to be “let in” to the homes of others, supplying much of the film's more saucily sweet nutrients against the achingly wan mise-en-scene of Oskar's daily trudging through the bleak landscapes, his feet crunching the icy snow beneath him as he moves, and the factory-like monotony of unease at his school or the detached confines of his place of residence. It is a great credit to Alfredson that some of these scenes do not play as the repetitive rhythmic beats that in strictest narrative form they are, as the child actors are laved with finely gentle attentiveness and keenly inspired direction, refreshing the picture just when it seems to be stalling. Alfredson's approach makes the occurrences just appropriately off-center, centrifugally bringing the picture to its climax.
While the climax itself is not terribly magnetic, suffering from a predictability and conformation to formula as dated as Carrie, it is like the entire film—exquisitely photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema—visually interesting and the epilogue strikes the precisely correct note. What finally matters is the central relationship of Oskar and Eli, and though the film spends more time than is necessary with the comparatively thinly-drawn adults who happen to share Oskar and Eli's inhabitation, its makers are securely knowing—that the picture's potency is derived from the two children. She serving as the caliginous, murky mirror of his own soul, he evidently providing her with the connection she has been missing for so long (her body may be twelve years old but like Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire that is only her body). Recalling films as disparate as the aforementioned Carrie, Interview with the Vampire and also An American Werewolf in London, Let the Right One In nevertheless signifies its own path. Yes, the familiar correlation between sexuality and vampirism is abundantly exploited, in this instance given a deftly fashioned pubescent context, but Alfredson reaches deeper. His film is about shapes, how they change, and the glee with which filmmakers can manipulate them. The frostily flat surfaces punctuated by creepy, sometimes bluish, sometimes sallow lighting, suggests a film determined to break free of its own foreordained standards, conventions and expectations, and of the lingering discomfort they leave for those still intrigued by this most provocative essaying of the inhumanity of humans and the humanity of the inhuman.