Friday, February 04, 2011

Let Me In DVD review

I was going to skip Let Me In, now on the New Arrivals wall of video stores. The Swedish film, Let the Right One In - weirdly completely effaced from the filmmakers' conversations in the "Making Of" extra on the Let Me In DVD - is such a skillful and moving variation on the vampire story, so interesting in its own right, that I resented the very idea of having it "translated" into English. Just go rent the original, for fucksake, the story doesn't need to be told again two years after it came out, with the main difference being the language that's spoken: it's like having someone offer to chew my food for me, when my jaw is working just fine. I avoided the film theatrically and scoffed as I passed through Rogers - no way was I going to rent it. Stemming from such an apparently lazy impulse, to capitalize on a recent foreign hit for the me-no-read-subtitles demographic, how could the film possibly be any good?

Actually, it is, quite. A buddy of mine fixated on the character of Hit Girl in Kick Ass discovered that the actress who played her, Chloë Moretz, was playing the vampire, and deeply wanted to see it; since, like me, he has also read Linqvist's novel and seen the Swedish film, the opportunity to compare notes was too inviting, and suddenly a film I wasn't interested in seeing at all on my own became a must-see, for social purposes.

It far exceeded my expectations. The things in it that work, work very well; director Matt Reeves - last seen doing something rather puzzling with images of 9/11 in the monster movie Cloverfield - gets terrific work out of a young Australian actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee - "the boy" in The Road, here playing Owen, the film's variation on Oskar. While Kåre Hedebrant, the Swedish actor playing Oskar, presented him as a vaguely effeminate wimp, a pure "innocent victim," helplessly seduced into evil, Smit-McPhee has a vaguely punky/ Gothy/ bookish/ queerish vibe about him here, and conveys at least a hint of a feeling of superiority to those who bully him (the bullying is in fact initiatlly motivated by a smirk of his, as he watches some older kids get in trouble; we - and they - sense he judges them). There is also more conviction to his attraction to evil, as a response - his rage is more palpable and more frightening than Oskar's, his menace more Columbine-sincere. Compared to femme Oskar, Owen seems more likely the sort of boy who might be tempted down a Very Wrong Path, given sufficient nudging.

The film does something else that really worked for me, backdating its story to 1983. For my demographic, anyhow, there was enough of a connection to the years when *I* was being occasionally bullied - give or take a few - that a personal connection was established between myself and the kids that I did not feel as strongly with the Swedish film. At least for the first half - before the recycling of the Swedish original kicked in in earnest - I felt much more interested and emotionally invested in Owen and Abby than I had in Oskar and Eli. Also interesting are the choices to set the film in Los Alamos, New Mexico - where one of the greatest evils America has produced, the atomic bomb, was born; and to use a recording of Ronald Reagan (!), about the potential for American evil, to preface the main story of the film, which set all sorts of bizarre chords clanging in the back of my head. There is a bit more play with gender ambiguity (tho' none of that "damaged prepubescent genital area imagery" that is so startling in the original film), more of a possible homoerotic reading - Moretz convincingly presents Abby as a boy in one scene, and her protest that she's not a girl is repeated more than once, though never explained. One feels, too, that the filmmakers have more of an interest in (and insight into) the ways that children can be drawn into doing bad things, out of loyalty to each other and a lack of other options. Some of the film is startlingly effective - and to its credit, at least in the first half, many scenes bear very little resemblance to the Swedish original. We begin, for example, with an emergency ambulance ride to the hospital, after Eli/Abby's "protector" has disfigured himself with acid. At least one of the murder scenes is completely different from how it is handled in the previous film, too, involving a brilliantly shot car crash, as shown from inside the car...

Alas, however - though the film is better than I expected and bears looking at, a lot of it doesn't work at all. Contrary to the Swedish film, you don't get as much of a sense of community or landscape, the wonderful sense of Nordic suburban desolation; the film does not begin to capture the specificities of growing up in Los Alamos, if it was ever meant to, such that Owen's alienation is more of a feature of his personality than his social context. And though the choice to backdate the film is inspired, without the opening title announcing the year, one would never even know it was a period piece, save for the relative absence of computers and gadgets and the kind of songs that play on the radio; it doesn't really "capture" the 1980's so well. The narrative, further, is generally more hurried - the film is considerably shorter than the original - and leaves a great deal to be inferred; while the Swedish film, for example, spells out Oskar and Eli's use of Morse code to communicate, so that at the end, when he taps out a message on her trunk, everyone knows what is happening, in Let Me In, when we see this, it is actually the first time that Morse is shown being used - which I'm sure some audience members will be lost by, if they haven't seen the original. And while some scenes are brilliantly re-imagined, others (the hospital visit, the swimming pool massacre) are directly lifted from the first film, if bloodied up a bit. Sad, too, that the film DOESN'T have anywhere near the guts of the novel, in approaching the theme of pedophilia - too much of a hot potato for American mainstream cinema, though the film could have been a BIT braver...

Finally, I have to mention that I was occasionally deeply frustrated by the soundtrack, by Michael Giacchino. The music for the film has three rough modes: the creepily atmospheric one, the tensely menacing one, and the Hollywood Love Story one. You may be able to guess which of the three I found out of place... Seemingly because the filmmakers lost faith in the actors' ability to convey growing love and interdependence between our bullied boy protagonist and his vampire boy/girlfriend, they choose to underscore each "tender" scene between them with some of the most annoyingly cliched strains imaginable, so obvious, so trite and so WRONG for the overall mood of the film that I wanted to plug up my ears and shout obscenities at the screen when they were on (or at least "No! No! No!"). Giacchino handles the creepy and tense modalities so well that one might assume his hand was somewhat forced - like he was perhaps instructed to re-record certain themes by some money-man, instructed to make them more cloying, more obvious, more saccharine. Or perhaps he really is to blame: suffice to say, damage is done to the film by this score.

All the same: Let Me In is far better than I thought it would be. It's not necessary, it's not a film I'm recommending, but it's at the very least evidence that someday, Matt Reeves might make a really good horror film.

He hasn't quite, yet, but he deserves points for trying.

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