Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Movies: Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Unquestionably the best movie of the year, and additionally the best vampire movie I've ever seen, this Swedish film borders on aesthetic perfection with its minimal, frozen landscape and equally snow-white protagonist, a toe head boy so white as to be bloodless. All these varying shades of pale, of course, serve to show all the more starkly the careful siphoning of blood, funneled into a canister from a carefully strung up corpse in the first "violent" scene; it is, in fact, so clinical, so neat, so Swedish, that it hardly seems violent at all, and it then makes the actual violent scenes—the pouncing, open-mouthed attacks—heart-stopping: these attacks leave a dark red mess in the snow.

This is as much a coming-of-age tale as a vampire story; the toe headed Oskar is bullied at school and we first see him pressed to the frosty glass of his apartment, his soft, pale chest bare, wearing sagging white briefs and fondling a small knife he keeps hidden in his room. He is play-acting, hissing "squeal like a pig!" (c.f. Deliverance), imagining revenge. He spends frosty evenings alone in his sterile apartment building's frozen courtyard, where a snowy jungle gym offers little diversion, jabbing at the trees with his knife, hissing "squeal like a pig!" It is there that Eli appears, she who will become his friend, in spite of their differences. We know her secret before he does, but he eventually finds out. He will save her life, and she will save his in turn. Eventually, they will leave that town together.

But here is the existentially brilliant twist. At the film's beginning, an old man is Eli's caretaker. He goes out nights, strings up bodies, and bleeds them into a canister to feed her. But in this new town, people are suspicious. The dead are missed. The old man is caught, and he disfigures his face with acid before he can be identified. Wheezing in a hospital bed, he provides Eli her last meal when she comes to say goodbye.

At the film's end, we realize that Oskar will be Eli's new caretaker. We see him again, pressed nearly naked to the glass window, and the film makes an elegant circle. If the old man wasn't Oskar per se, we know that Oskar's fate will be the same. He will spend his life procuring for Eli, and suddenly their friendship feels a bit less special, a bit more troublesome. We wonder how many boys Eli has "seduced" (in this startlingly unerotic way).

Earlier, I said that the movie "borders" on perfection; the only reason it isn't truly perfect is a scene that could still be edited out with no damage done to plot continuity. One of Eli's victims, a woman, doesn't immediately die, but instead finds herself thirsting for blood. She scrabbles at the snow where a body had fallen days before, trying to lap up the frozen leftovers. One evening, she enters the cozy apartment of a grandmotherly man who keeps cats—scores of them. Recognizing evil, each one arches its back, hisses, and, then pounces, until the woman is covered in howling, biting, clawing cats, and she runs from the room, screaming and grasping at their clinging bodies. This scene is so poorly executed (the cats look mechanical, unreal) that it threatens the credibility of the rest of the film (which, for a vampire movie, is surprisingly credible—pedestrian, even). That said, the film is so otherwise stunning that it saves itself.

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