Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Let the Right One In" review

I thought that film had lost that something it had 30 years ago. That revelatory factor, the power to utlise the the film lense to tell a story that no other medium could tell – to use the camera as much as the actors and the script to tell your story; not to spell things out for the audience like we're stupid people (surely a visual medium doesn't need to have everything spelled out, surely there is scope within that medium to hint at things using visual metaphors – try telling that to Michael Bay).

You see, I have always had this sneaking suspicion that film was perfected at some time in the ... okay, so I can't put an exact date on it, but there have certainly been other times than this one where film was, to put it simply, better.

I was sure that I had seen the best films, or if I hadn't seen them, they certainly did not belong to today's celluliod landscape of utter mediocrity. Mediocrity has a scale, range from 'ah, it was okay' to 'it was pretty bad'. Okay, so there are still many films which go past the negative side of the mediocre spectrum and go right to that place at the pit of your stomach that makes you want to vomit up your popcorn and coke all over the director and say, 'ha, see how you fucking like it, you talentless shit who could barely pass for a sentient life form.' But usually the director isn't around for you to vomit all over and waste his precious time while he cleans it off himself. That's about one hour thirty minutes on average it should take him, if there's any justice in the world.

I want to be moved by film. I want a film to stay with me for a couple of days while I marvel about this or that aspect of it, or wonder exactly what was meant by that man in the doorway in the closing scene. I want there to be an unknown; a subtext; a richness of character; and a cracking story. Most of all, I don't want to be treated like a slobbering idiot, or be reduced down to the price of a cinema ticket, as film companies count how much a film made on its opening weekend.

That brings me to Let the Right One In. Okay, so the name sounds like it's going to be one of those sickly sweet love stories that are churned out, usually starring someone like Jennifer Aniston, and usually with the exact same basic plot as literally thousands of films that have proceeded it, with just a few minor tweaks to make it seem as if they came up with something original. You can just imagine Jennifer Aniston having to choose between two guys, one who seemingly has everything but in the end doesn't measure up or turns out to be a dick or something like that, or the other guy, who is kind of normal, has a sense of humour, initially gets on her nerves, but they fall in love at the end and get married. You know the one I'm talking about - the kind of thing that is akin to a crack pipe to a certain section of the female population.

Anyway, Let the Right One In is definitely not that kind of film. But it is all of those things which I have been lamenting about in that mythical golden age of cinema (mythical in the sense that it can't really be pinpointed in any one time only to say that it existed some time in the past and it doesn't exist now). It is poetic, ever so slightly humourous, beautifully shot and haunting. It is tender with an undercurrent of violence, or violent with an undercurrent of tenderness, and interchangably so. It follows the story of a young Swedish boy (the film is set in Sweden) named Oskar who is being bullied at school and has a morbid fascination with death. He fantisises about facing down his aggressors, practicing in a snow-filled courtyard with a knife, his opponent being a tree. Watching him while he takes out his pent up anger is Eli, a seemingly similarly aged girl. She too has a secret and a darker side to her personality, and the two are drawn together in what you could either call one of the loveliest romatic pairings you have ever seen in a film deemed to be horror in genre, or you could view their relationship itself as something monstrous, something horrific. There is a dichotomy at play in this film which is only truly revealed at the end. Even at that, there is a chance you might miss it, or that it might take a bit of time to think about or a rewatch. But it is there, and it makes this film haunting and beautiful, where the line between love and a means to an end is blurred.

This is an incredibly subtle film, which is also incredibly refreshing. There is a savage kind of humour, the kind which is born out of the indifference or, conversely, the reactionary nature of the adults. Like most fables which portray the fears and anxieties of children, the adults don't come out in a good light. Oskar's relationship with his mother is loving in the glimpses we see of it, but then again he probably doesn't tell her about his problems at school, maintaining a distance between son and mother. He gets on better with his father, but his father is also a drunk who (presumably) walked out on his mother. The other adults are reactionary, distant, incompetant or just plain odd in equal measure. Take one character is essentially a serial killer, but is possibly the worst of his kind in cinematic history, choosing public places with which to do his work, resulting in two botched attempts. Even his weight lifting coach, who encourages Oskar, is distant and noncommital.

In this way, Let the Right One In joins a long list of children's films which, though whimsical and humourous, have a current of terror running through them, with the adult world being a thing of amusement, and all the more frightening for it. Like in Coraline, or Spirited Away, the life of the child is seperate from that of the adult, and the child's struggle to be understood as adults go about their own lives in their strange adult world is perhaps one of the most terrifying things about being a child. Alienation begins in childhood, it seems. You heard it here first!

So, is Let the Right One In a children's film? Well, no, because this is a film which subverts the natural order, and in doing so gives us a neat resolution. But, nothing that happens between these two children is normal. To achieve such a neat resolution extremely abnormal things have to happen first. One of the most chilling parts is where Eli tells Oskar to fight back against the bullies, to hit them hard. This may seem like the kind of advice that a child would get in one of those American family comedies, where the resolution comes when the bully gets his comeupance and the natural order is restored, but in the world of Let the Right One In, this is advice which will lead to more aggression and force a resolution which subverts the natural order of things. And, like Oskar, you'll be ultimately glad for it.

In the end, Oskar doesn't become a fully functioning member of society, or doesn't learn a lesson which will help him make the transition into the adult world. Oskar chooses something else. Without ruining the film, I would say that this film is about love, which in the end may be manipulation, and it may not be. And, the film seems to be saying, it may be both. But ultimately it is the fact that the child's quest for meaning, understanding and acceptance is subverted to a resolution that is most certainly not about growing up. By the end we're glad that this was the resolution reached. There is a feel good aspect to the ending which is also subvertive, and after a time it may dawn on you exactly why a DVD rental of the film is situated in the horror section of the shop.

This is why I love this film; it is a horror masquerading as a love story, and it is a love story masquerading as a horror. It's themes are far from straight forward, and organised this way. Oh, and before I bore you any longer with my new-found love for Swedish cinema and why this is like a film from 'back in the day', to coin a phrase, and such a delicious answer to the complete and utter shitness of Hollywood (they're going to remake this by the way – now that is actually horrific), let me leave you with another thing which might make you watch the film (you should); it's also got a vampires in it! 'Yay, bring on the gore', I hear you say.

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