Guest contributor John W. Smith is in Austin, Texas, for Fantastic Fest, which played host on Thursday to the U.S. premiere of Let Me In.
There’s a scene in Jerry Maguire where the protagonist, a loathsome sports agent struggling with twinges of morality, spends an evening writing a tract that summarizes everything that’s wrong with his company and his business. He goes to Kinko's in the middle of the night to print enough copies for all of his co-workers, and the clerk, sensing the risk his customer is taking, delivers some classic advice: “That’s how you become great, man. Hang your balls out there.”
In a manner of speaking, that’s what Let Me In director Matt Reeves has done. Reeves has helmed just two other films, the 1996 romantic comedy The Pallbearer and 2008’s Blair Witch-meets-Godzilla monster flick Cloverfield. The latter, for all the hype it commanded, seems to be remembered less for Reeves’ direction and more for the project’s secrecy and production style. So when it was announced he would write and direct an American remake of Sweden’s acclaimed vampire romance Let the Right One In, you had to feel for the guy. Can you please the hardcore fans of the original and make it a marketable American movie?
Thankfully, his ballsy move paid off -- at least, halfway. Let Me In is a great film that respects and successfully translates the source material and finds young actors capable of giving dark, complex performances.
The movie follows a 12-year-old named Owen (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) who lives with his mother in a shabby, sad apartment complex in the snowy high desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. His parents are divorcing, and his mother seems to find comfort only in religion, neglecting her son when he’s at his most vulnerable. The boy is the sort of troubled adolescent that bullies tend to focus on -- physically nonthreatening, lacking in personality, and sensitive enough to break and react. His primary tormentor is Kenny (Dylan Minnette, Jack’s son on Lost), the leader of a pack of underclassmen whom we later learn is channeling and mimicking his older brother.
At home Owen maniacally stabs trees while fantasizing about unloading on his bullies. He notices an old man and a young girl moving in to the apartment next door. Her name is Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz from Kick-Ass), a girl who walks barefoot in the snow with no problems. They circle each other for a while until bonding over a Rubik’s Cube.
It turns out that Abby is a vampire, but Owen doesn’t know that. We meet her companion, never named and billed in the credits only as The Father (The Visitor’s Richard Jenkins). He kidnaps a young man, drags him into the forest and drains his blood into a jug. After the man accidentally knocking over the jug and returns empty-handed, Abby flies into a rage and we get a sense of what The Father's tortured life is like. “Maybe I’m getting sloppy,” he says. “Maybe I wanted to get caught. Maybe I’m getting tired of this.”
A sort of romance blossoms between Owen and Abby, one that's more overt and developed than in the Swedish version (which seemed more chaste). Owen steals money from his mother to take Abby on a date, during which he introduces her to Ms. Pac-Man -- the writers thankfully spared us a cloying scene where she magically masters the game -- and gets her to try a piece of Now or Later candy. Later he shows her a secret abandoned apartment where older kids play records and smoke. She encourages him to strike back at Kenny the next time he feels threatened: "Hit them harder than you dare."
Abby asks him if he would like her if she wasn’t a girl. Owen soon learns what she means when he offers a blood pact and, well, you can imagine what happens when she sees blood.
I’ll leave the plot description at that. Fans should know that it follows much the same throughline with a few parts simplified (and characters reworked). Aside from the path Elias Koteas’ Policeman character takes in investigating what he thinks are ritual killings, Let Me In hits the same beats as Let the Right One In.
There was one important difference between Let Me In and its predecessor worth mentioning: Fans of the novel and movie know that there’s a bit more subtext to the “not a girl” line. In Let the Right One In, the Abby character, Eli, means many things when she says she’s not a girl. This is backstory made overt in the novel and mostly subtle in the Swedish film, but exists only in very, very slight glimpses in Let Me In. It’s not required information, but it’ll be missed by most audiences, and that’s a shame. In the original it added a level of subtext and depth that these filmmakers missed out on.
Otherwise, Reeves’ direction choices are quite good, and we never feel as if he’s merely working off the storyboards of the original film. His script also works as a fine translation and serves to sufficiently transplant the setting from a Swedish suburb to small-town America. Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino’s score is superb -- consisting mostly of tones and harsh strings, it highlights the drama and never takes away. The cinematography by Grieg Fraser is also gorgeous and never seems to ape a shot from Let the Right One In. The film isn’t flawless, however. The CGI work animating Abby is poor -- at times she resembles a hyperactive Gollum -- and the violence is generally over the top and doesn’t fit the rest of the film.
But that’s okay. It works. Let Me In is one of the better films of the year, and certainly the best American vampire movie in a long time. Earlier I said that Reeves’ ballsy choice to take this movie was half-successful. The question remains whether a vampire romance that isn't Twilight-derivative can appeal to a mass audience and make money in wide release.
Let Me In opens Friday, Oct. 1.