Much as it pains me to admit, Let Me In was pretty much doomed
to failure of some kind from the start. First, there was all of the
pessimism and doubt about upstart filmmaker Matt Reeves trying to craft
an American remake of a foreign film hailed as a masterpiece. The
casting announcements and advance reviews managed to greatly pacify this
backlash and that was miracle enough, quite frankly.
That aside, the next challenge was getting the word out to people who
had never before seen or heard of Let the Right One In. You’d
think that would be relatively easy, since domestic films are so much
easier sold than subtitled ones and this vampire film had the Twilight
craze going for it. Alas, the primary distributor for Let Me In
is Overture Films, which ran into financial troubles just as the film
hit theaters. With pretty much no money for sufficient mainstream
advertisement, the film went unnoticed and dropped from the top ten in
its second week of release. I consider this a shame, since Let Me In isn’t
really a bad movie. It’s just one of those frustratingly mediocre
movies that could easily have been great, but isn’t.
Let’s start with the core of this movie: Oskar and Eli, now named
Owen and Abby. Their relationship is the axis of this story and it was
played to perfection in the Swedish original. Unfortunately, the
Owen/Abby pairing just doesn’t quite mesh. The chemistry isn’t
completely non-existent, but it isn’t strong enough either. This problem
certainly isn’t with Abby, who’s beautifully played by Chloe Moretz.
All of the young vampire’s pain, joy and beauty come through clearly and
Moretz plays her with far more strength and maturity than I’d expect
from a thirteen-year-old girl. I know that growing up as a child actor
isn’t easy, but I pray that we don’t lose this one to drug habits and
sex tapes. Kid’s got a bright future. Of course, it must be said that
the film first shows her as a true monster — giving her an extreme
close-up with colored contacts and a bloody mouth over a fresh corpse —
far too early, but that’s more Reeves’ choice than any decision of
Moretz’ and the character of Abby is otherwise pretty much unchanged.
No, the real problem here is with our male lead. In the original,
Oskar was a kid on the edge of criminal insanity. This was a kid who
studied deaths and murders. A kid who had every intention of going
Columbine on his bullies, but didn’t yet have the means or gumption to
do so. The remake, on the other hand, drastically waters down Owen’s
homicidal tendencies. When Oskar stabs the tree, he’s fantasizing.
Daydreaming. Practicing. When Owen stabs the tree, it’s like he’s just
venting. When Oskar finally hits the bullies back, it’s like years of
repressed anger are finally lashing out. When Owen does it, it comes off
more as self-defense.
Basically put, both boys are growing up in cruel conditions with no
friends or trustworthy adults to lean on. Oskar responds with fantasies
of revenge. Owen still hasn’t decided what he’s going to do. This is a
perfectly valid take on the character, but Reeves and Kodi Smit-McPhee
just can’t make it work, no matter how hard they try. Moreover, Reeves
made the decision to make the bullies even more hellish while
simultaneously taming Owen, making our male lead look like even more of a
weakling. The long and short of it is that the character of Abby is
more or less kept as is and her interactions with Owen are pretty much
translated verbatim, though the character of Owen has changed
considerably. This throws a sizable monkey wrench into their chemistry.
The movie also damages Owen’s character with regard to his sexual
development. The original movie dealt with this in a very subtle way,
through the subtext of Oskar’s times with Eli and his own barely
prepubescent age. Owen, however, is seen interrupting his murder
fantasies to spy on two neighbors having sex. Additionally, in blatant
and useless reference to his star-crossed affair with Abby, Owen is
shown to be studying Romeo & Juliet. No points for subtlety, Mr.
To be fair, however, I should point out that Owen’s spying on his
neighbors made a nice visual metaphor for his complete separation from
other people. This theme of isolation is greatly assisted by Reeves’
novel decision to keep Owen’s parents obscured or off-camera. On a
totally separate note, Owen is also given a fondness for Now & Later
candy. He starts and finishes the film by singing its jingle (“Eat some
now, save some for later”), which carries some rather disturbing
implications for Abby’s eating habits if I’m interpreting it right.
Speaking of which, I should mention Abby’s caretaker, who is far and
away better here than he was in the original. The Swedish Hakan was
frankly quite incompetent at his work, botching his job and getting
caught either because he panicked or because he made stupid decisions.
Richard Jenkins’ character (credited only as “The Father”), however, is
much better at killing, if only because he has the aforethought to wear a
friggin’ mask. He’s very clever in his methods and practiced in
execution. When he fails — as the story dictates he must — it’s more
through poor luck than through any bad decision of his own (how was he
supposed to know that the snow was going to give way?). Moreover, when
he fails, he has the clarity of mind to think that maybe he is getting
old. Maybe he is getting sloppy. Maybe he is getting tired of killing
and maybe on some subconscious level, he does want to get caught. All
when Hakan would offer nothing more than a feeble apology. Add in
Jenkins’ forlorn performance and you’ve got a hell of a character.
But all of this avoids the $20 million question: Why remake this
movie? What’s the point? What is Matt Reeves bringing to the story
that’s new? The $9.5 million answer, I’m sorry to say, is “not much.”
Oh, there are some hints of original ideas: Reeves decided to set the
story in 1980s America, at a time when President Reagan was using
religious rhetoric to illustrate the “good America vs. evil Soviets”
conflict. Additionally, Owen’s mother is shown to be uber-Christian and
Owen himself has to ask his atheist dad if there’s such a thing as evil
in this world. What does all of this amount to? Hell if I know. Maybe
I’m missing something, but if Reeves was trying to make any religious,
philosophical or political point about the proceedings, then it’s lost
What’s more, the other neighbors are almost totally missing from the
remake. Seems to me that if Reeves wanted to bring American xenophobia
into the picture, then bringing in the paranoid villagers who react with
mob mentality to the killings would be a natural choice. Unfortunately,
our primary civilian is not some guy out to kill a little girl because
he thinks she’s a bloodsucking monster. Rather, he’s a police detective
who’s only trying to find the truth and stop the killings. There’s a
world of difference between the two: It’s the difference between
frightened vigilante justice and a patriotic duty to law and order.
While I’m on the subject, I should point out that the remake does
feature a woman who gets turned into a vampire and subsequently flambeed
in the hospital. The problem is that this character arc in the remake
— while much more visually spectacular — carries no heft whatsoever.
We see her through Owen’s window a few times before the turning, but we
don’t see her at all afterward. In fact, I don’t think she gets a single
line of dialogue in the whole movie. We don’t see her suffering, we
don’t get an idea of what it’s like to be freshly undead and her
transformation to charcoal doesn’t come through just deserts or by
request, but through sheer accident. The subplot does lead our detective
to Abby, but it’s otherwise totally wasted.
However, I do feel the need to address one thing that this movie gets
absolutely right: The music. The pop songs throughout are wonderfully
chosen and utilized, particularly “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie. First,
it’s used as workout music for one of Owen’s neighbors. Second, it’s
used to identify the selfsame neighbor when we next see him. Third, it’s
used to identify the Walkman that Richard Jenkins is listening to a few
scenes later. Brilliant.
The score also deserves mention, and I could scarcely believe it when
I heard that this movie was scored by Michael Fucking Giacchino. I
thought my ears were deceiving me: No way could this music be written by
the same man who scored Speed Racer,
the Star Trek reboot
and The Incredibles.
I know that comparing this film to those others would be like comparing
an onion to oranges, but I’ve come to associate Giacchino with music
that’s bright, fast and energetic. The score to Let Me In is none
of those things. Giacchino has crafted a subtle and unobtrusive score
for this film, filled with percussive pulses, choral wailings and
versatile strings. It all adds wonderfully to the film’s atmosphere.
The cinematography is also very good, as Matt Reeves shows clear
visual skill with this movie. The whole film is filled with warm and
cold colors that contrast harshly to nice effect. There are also many
times in the film when Reeves shows great ingenuity in how to shoot
particular scenes. Sometimes, such as the brilliant car crash scene, it
works. Sometimes, as with the ending pool scene, it doesn’t.
Sure, the pool scene looks great and features some rather spectacular
gore, but that’s kinda the problem. In the original, that scene was
amazing precisely because of how subdued it was. The scene was more or
less entirely silent, with lengthy suspense gradually giving way to
terror as the water slowly turned red. In the remake, the suspense lasts
for about ten seconds before the screen is overrun with screaming
murders and bloody mutilations. Of course, if I may digress, I’d forgive
all of that if I could get just one version of this scene that made
some goddamn sense! Ever since I first watched the original film, I’ve
been carrying that one stupid nitpick about how Eli couldn’t have known
that Oskar was in trouble and she couldn’t have gone back to the school
that quickly even if she did. I’ve found absolutely no answer
as to how it’s possible and the remake continues that stupid, stupid
plot hole. Gah.
When all is said and done, Let Me In could have and should
have been a great movie. The music is wonderful, the visuals are solid
and the cast is uniformly wonderful. Even Kodi Smit-McPhee is clearly
doing the best he can with what he’s given. The talent is here and a
sincere love of the source material is clearly present, but Reeves
seems incapable of fitting his own interpretations of the source
material into the mix and he shows a distinct lack of subtlety when the
film needs it most.
I can’t help but feel that all this movie really needed was another
polish or two on the screenplay. Or maybe Reeves should have shared the
screenwriting duties or handed them to someone else entirely. Maybe he
should have waited until he had a few more movies under his belt. Would a
different editor have helped?
In any case, all the necessary ingredients for a great remake are in
here, but a few misguided creative choices prevent them from fully
coalescing. Still, in this time when studio meddling is commonplace and
the Twilight franchise is making millions, this film could easily have been a hell of a lot worse. I certainly
wouldn’t stop anyone from checking it out and I can’t wait to see what
Matt Reeves does next, though I would definitely recommend the original
film over this.