Thursday, October 7, 2010

Let Me In: Poignant bite

Let Me In (2010) • View trailer for Let Me In
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated R for violence, gore, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.07.10
Buy DVD: Let Me In • Buy Blu-Ray: Let Me In [Blu-ray]

This is the sort of story that should unfold as a total surprise, the better to construct the creepy mood that director/scripter Matt Reeves works so hard to maintain.

Sadly, that isn't possible in today's show-me-now society. Media magazines, TV infotainment shows and various Web feeds blew the premise of Let Me In months ago: The little girl is a vampire, and she's played by the talented young actress who made such as splash in (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass.

Seeking some common ground with the very strange girl
who has moved into his apartment complex, Owen (Kodi
Smit-McPhee) shows Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) a Rubik's
Cube. She's charmed and intrigued; the connection is
made. The question, then, is whether Owen will have
reason to regret the resulting friendship...
Then, too, the plot has been known for awhile by arthouse cinema fans who caught the Swedish original, Let the Right One In, which in turn is adapted from the novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist.

So ... no surprises. The question, then, is whether Reeves can maintain the necessary unsettling tone without the benefit of much suspense.

Answer: He does pretty well, helped in great part by his two young stars.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure gore-jaded American viewers are willing to tolerate the retro-style slow build that Reeves employs. Far too many people laughed in all the wrong places during last week's Sacramento preview screening, each time destroying the mood. Patrons also were fidgety, but that's a more forgivable sin; Reeves' film is a bit self-indulgent at 116 minutes, and could benefit from a trim.

Still, I applaud his willingness to try for the unsettling, nervous-making atmosphere that leaves a much greater impact than brief, funhouse flurries of in-our-faces gore. Let Me In also benefits from its parallel side story, and that's where the two talented stars become so important; this isn't merely a monster movie, but also a painful, melancholy coming-of-age saga.

The setting is Los Alamos, N.M.  actually rather similar to the desolate, small-town setting of the Swedish original  in the Reagan-era early 1980s. The Cold War is at its height, and The Gipper has just made his "evil empire" speech: a black-and-white depiction of good/bad that resonates with 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, well remembered from The Road), a social outcast who is viciously bullied at school.

Owen's parents are separated, soon to divorce; he lives in a cinderblock apartment complex with his overly religious mother, who insists on superficial amenities like saying grace before meals ... but frequently passes out each evening, after drinking too much. She's just this side of being an absentee parent, an impression enhanced by the fact that we never see her face (clever touch, that).

Owen, frequently left to his own devices, has embraced disquieting habits: He's far too fond of knives, and he spies on neighbors with the telescope in his room. Mostly, though, his voyeuristic tendencies are a substitute for the friends he lacks: an effort to connect with people somehow.

He therefore notices immediately when new tenants move into the adjacent apartment: a girl his age and her father (Richard Jenkins). He meets the girl, Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), early one evening, in the apartment courtyard. She's ... odd. Despite the cold weather and snow, she's barefoot; she also "smells funny," as Owen puts it. The latter comment stings; a flicker of shame and self-loathing passes across Abby's face.

This scene, along with all others between these two children, is handled with impressive subtlety, delicacy and sensitivity; both young actors are skilled, and a pleasure to watch. We're completely willing to go wherever they take us.

This proves an unusual journey. Despite her insistence that "We can't be friends," that's exactly what happens. Although sensing something is amiss, Owen can't put the pieces together: the loud, guttural noises heard through their shared apartment wall; the cardboard plastered against all the neighboring unit's windows, blocking out daylight; the fact that Abby only visits after dark.

But Owen is occupied by other, more dire problems: a trio of young thugs led by Dylan Minnette's Kenny. Minnette is a sneering little horror of a bully, and Owen lives in terror of daily confrontations and beatings. He confides these fears to Abby; she advises him to hit back ... and hit back hard. (If only.)

At the same time...

Abby's father makes routine 'outings' that result in gruesome homicides, which come to the attention of a police officer (Elias Koteas) with a nose for detective work. The sense of isolation — of this place, of Owen's sad life  is amplified by the absence of names; we learn no more about this cop's identity than we do of Owen's mother, or Abby's father.

But because the latter is played by Jenkins, we actually discover a great deal about this sad, weary man's character. He's tired, bone tired; we sense that he has been doing this ugly work for a long, long time, and that relocation is a frequent necessity. His expression, when glancing at Abby, is a fascinating mixture of revulsion, resignation and devotion; he loves her, would do anything for her.

Has done anything for her.

But the dynamic is shifting, which may have something to do with Abby's willingness to spend more time with Owen.

This relationship moves in provocative directions. Like most 12-year-old boys, Owen has discovered sexual desire. Abby, despite her youthful appearance, senses and understands this, acting on it as gently as she can. Reeves exploits this social taboo to the outer edge of good taste, but never crosses the threshold; we're left to wonder about the degree to which Abby can "mature" emotionally, despite being trapped in the body of a little girl.

Indeed, this story plays engagingly with the various "rules" of vampire lore: their strength and speed, the dangers of sunlight, the need to request permission before entering somebody's home (hence the film's title). The latter edict, in particular, is given a fresh and clever twist.

Mostly, though, we're transfixed by Moretz and Smit-McPhee. She's particularly fascinating: an ethereal child who nonetheless radiates unexpected wisdom and experience (which she similarly portrayed, although less malevolently, as the wise younger sister in (500) Days of Summer). Abby moves tentatively in Owen's presence, not wanting to frighten him, but at the same time desperately wanting to be liked no matter what.

"Would you still like me ... if I weren't a girl?" she asks, at one point. Moretz's eyes go glassy; she's terrified by what he might say.

Owen, baffled by the question, eventually answers in the affirmative, not realizing that his response soon will be put to the test.

Even the most crazed, impossible concepts are made palatable and persuasive by skilled acting. Moretz and Smit-McPhee sell this moment, as they sell all others; our heart breaks for these dejected, desperately lonely children (even though one isn't actually a child). Reeves teases us into wanting a happy ending for these two, despite our certain knowledge of what that would mean.

Actually, Reeves is quite good at getting us to "root for evil," as it were. Alfred Hitchcock was the master at shifting our allegiances: Robert Walker struggling to reach the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, despite what this would mean to hero Farley Granger's fate; serial killer Barry Foster prying his tie tack from the dead fingers of his most recent victim, in Frenzy, in order not to be caught.

Here, Reeves' camera jams into Jenkins' face when one, ah, foraging expedition goes awry as the lone driver of a car  where Jenkins has concealed himself  stops to pick up a friend ... and then to get gas.

Suddenly, grotesquely, we want all these distractions hurled aside, so that Jenkins can succeed with his ghastly mission ... but that's awful, terrible, despicable!

Dastardly. Delicious.

I'm less pleased by the wholly unnecessary flash-forward with which Reeves opens his film. It feels like pandering, as if Reeves is trying to appease impatient viewers who'll insist on something momentous at the outset, to compensate for the narrative's languid linear build. (Based on last week's preview, Reeves may have been right ... but it's still a stylistic mistake.)

Lindqvist's book is by no means the first to explore the odd, unsettling duality of a vampire child; numerous short stories got there first, going all the way back to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872), as did Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. But Lindqvist  and both these film adaptations  focus on the likely emotional resonance to a much greater degree, and that's what informs the best parts of Let Me In.

This movie craves  deserves  intimacy; sitting among scores of jaded theatergoers probably won't do it any favors.

A few months from now, though, when home video afterlife allows quieter viewing at home, on a dark and windy night ... ah, that's likely to be an entirely different experience.

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