Written and Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elias Kotas, Richard Jenkins
Let Me In early on has a scene so unsettling that, left unexplained, would have led me to think of it as a very different movie. A boy, aged 12, sits alone in his room staring at himself in a mirror with a spooky, almost, Michael Meyers-like mask. “Are you scared, little girl?” he asks, holding a large knife towards the mirror, “Are you scared?”
Within a short time, you understand why he is enacting this scene, and it actually seems quite innocent. This isn’t the only time that Let Me In uses our own movie clichés against us and this is just some of the beauty of the film. Our minds our so conjure up scenarios seen repetitively in other, lesser films and we almost write off what we are seeing. Hang in there, though. It’s worth the journey.
Portrayed by the maker, Matt Reeves (he of the ingenuitive and somewhat disorienting Cloverfield), as a re-adaptation of the book, some have lobbed criticism that it is instead a near exact remake of the 2008 Swedish film Let The Right One In. That said, if it is that close, I chose to think of it as a modern orchestra recreating a work done by Beethoven or Bach. I would never have wanted to watch the Swedish version, until now, seeing such an excellent movie that I did not have to read to understand.
The gist of the story is Owen, a 12-year-old boy played by Smit-McPhee, going through enough crisis for three people. On the one hand, his parents are divorcing, leaving his mother in ruins and him to fend for himself, both physically and emotionally. At school is another matter. Having been singled out by one boy with two friends as a target for harassment, every day at school is a threat to his life. It is easy to forget how harrowing those times were when observed through the prism of adulthood. What is not as easy to forget is having a crush. When a somber, barefoot girl moves in next door one night, his heart and other parts are brought to attention. Sometimes, when you are smitten at 12, the feeling can last a very long time.
The girl who just moved in next door, Abby (Moretz), has a peculiar way about her. Abby walks barefoot in the snow, only comes out after dark, and has pale, gaunt skin. The boy asks her if she wants to try his Rubik’s cube (the film is set in 1983). She says that she’s never heard of one. He hands it to her and is called in for supper. She finishes it within minutes of his leaving. Most telling, however, is the exchange from when they first meet:
Abby: Just so you know, we can’t be friends.
Owen: Why not?
Abby: It’s just the way it is.
Owen: Well who said I wanted to be your friend anyway? Idiot.
These words, chosen carefully, tell a bit about the relationship she shares with the person (Jenkins) she moved in with, and foreshadows every relationship she will ever have. That person, an older man named Thomas, has taken to going out nightly to kill locals. He takes them out to the woods as corpses, and what he does with them, I will leave for you to discover. His killing is not a compulsion, however. It is something he is impelled to do for an entirely different reason.
Introduced to solve the killings is a police detective played stoically by Koteas. He is a humble sort and he has stumbled onto something. He fails to realize the danger he is in, even after one of the victims who escaped death ends up exploding in flames, taking a nurse out as collateral damage. He will pursue this case, like he has many others. Ignorant, but not necessarily unwise.
The acting in this film is absolutely critical and minimalist. It does not take much emoting to get across some very complex stuff, and Smit-McPhee and Moretz have shown their chops quite effectively in the two films I have seen them in (this one, The Road and Kick-Ass) so far. I think we may hear a lot from both in the future. Moretz replaces the odd joviality that you see in Kick Ass with a sad resignation required of the part. Although he was required to carry the fire as somewhat of a burden in The Road, Smit-McPhee’s Owen awkwardly does the same for Moretz here. Slowly does he realize not only what his new friend really is, but that he has a purpose, grim as it may be, in her life. Jenkins and Koteas are excellent in their portrayals as two men drawn by their fate to meet their end. One (Jenkins) is doomed by love, the other by duty. That they both chose this movie should be a great sign for those on the fence about a movie that could be construed as horror. It is not a horror film, although some of the concepts make one scream out internally like the picture The Scream. Horror flicks are guys with chainsaws, machetes and masks wreaking havoc on stupid teens. This is a film about a life of despair alone and solace in each other.
The direction and the sound are both first-rate. The soundtrack augments the mood of what you are seeing, and not define it as so many soundtracks do these days. Several times during this film you hear the song “Let’s Dance” and this is a nice touch. You could not go anywhere in 1983 without hearing that song. It took a replay to reveal the other parts of the score to me, so organic were they.
The one drawback in the film for me would be the mess of the special effects, in one scene in particular. You will notice this scene as it makes the fateful decision to move back, when it should have moved forward and show an attack in its entirety. This attack is awkwardly presented at best, and the character attacking looks animated, and not in a good way. There are some other scenes, like jumping to and from trees that have that same effect. It is clear that the team producing the film did not trust their cutting instincts, because they could have used a minimalist approach and made it a whole bunch scarier. Later in the film, though, in the pool, is a sequence as well shot as it is scary.
Whether you believe Matthew Reeves was inspired more by the Swedish film than he was the book, either way, he was inspired. It takes an extremely high road in a genre that is considered top-tier for scary movies. This film is not to be missed, and will be remembered for a long time.
(****1/2 out of *****)