BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Lonely, bullied twelve-year-old Owen becomes friends with Abby, a young girl who moves into the apartment next door and who is not what she seems.
PROS: Talented leads Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Moretz in challenging roles; Matt Reeves technical prowess; script not too dumbed down for American audiences; a somewhat darker picture than Let the Right One In.
CONS: Not nearly as subtle as the original; too many nods to the original; use of CGI during vampire kill sequences.
I should get the obvious out of the way first.
If Let Me In were the only extant adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s engaging if occasionally scattershot novel, one might more easily praise Matt Reeves’s follow up to his engaging if occasionally scattershot first picture Cloverfield. But because Let Me In is in fact a remake of Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, and because Alfredson’s film is so beloved by its audience (including Reeves, who in my recent discussion with him dubbed the movie a masterpiece), objective criticism eludes this critic.
Initially, audiences who have seen the original couldn’t help but ask, “Why do it at all?” Now that the movie has been made, now that Reeves has set himself with the impossible task of trying to match a good deal of its evocation of mood and character, those same audiences are only left to ask, “How does it match up to the original?”
I’ll get to that, of course, and try to let objectivity reign, but for me, the original question still stands: why do it in the first place?
Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a reclusive product of divorce, frequently bullied by Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and essentially friendless. Spying at his neighbors through a telescope in his room one night, he watches Abby (Chloë Moretz) and a man he assumes is her father (Richard Jenkins) move into the apartment next door. Abby is strange indeed: a girl of lank hair and devoid of much life, she’s completely out of touch (she doesn’t know what Owen’s Rubik’s Cube is, and has never heard of Now and Later candy) and aloof (“I can’t be your friend,” she tells him almost immediately). She doesn’t even have a birthday. (“I’m twelve, more or less.”) After a fight at school with Kenny, Abby tells Owen she can help him. When Owen protests because she’s a girl, she gives him an almost resigned smile. “I’m stronger than you think I am.” Though the audience knows that Abby is a vampire, Reeves avoids the word for all of the first act and most of the second, letting the characters’ words body language do the work. It helps that he’s working with two strong actors (he said during an interview at Fantastic Fest that, had he not been able to find the right leads, he would have walked away from the project) and a number of others in good supporting roles.
Reeves does quite a few things right. Moving the setting to Los Alamos, New Mexico provides him with all of the oppressive architecture (the buildings look like they’ve to seed since the days following the Manhattan Project) and barren snow-covered landscapes necessary to capture the dead world Owen and Abby inhabit. He also wisely foregrounds the pre-teen characters, never allowing the camera to focus on Owen’s mother (Cara Buono) and never showing his father at all. Indeed, with maybe one or two exceptions, none of the adults supporting characters have names; they are ciphers with little or no place. He also compounds the story’s already complex moral compass. By beginning the movie a telecast of Ronald Reagan speaking about the nature of evil (which was a bit of overkill for me), and by making Abby’s motivations more nebulous, Reeves manages to turn in what is in some ways a darker picture than the original. Is Kenny’s bullying of Owen a manifestation of his own fears, or is it the result of his need for his sociopathic brother’s approval? Has Owen found a true friend or companion, or has he become a victim of Abby’s machinations? It’s fair to ask whether or not Abby’s “father” might have been in the same position as Owen years ago. Whatever the answers, it’s obvious that they are bleak indeed.
Good, too, is Reeves’s skill in setting up individual scenes. A scene where the “father” horribly botches a kill and attempts to make a getaway stands as one of the movie’s best moments, and one wishes Reeves could have employed such elements more often. Unfortunately, on too many occasions Let Me In resorts to shots almost identical to that of its predecessor, as if Reeves, in trying to be completely faithful to the original, is afraid of providing his own take on the material and thus resorts to cinematic plagiarism.
When the movie is at its most obvious it loses impact, and where the differences between it the Swedish version are most striking. Reeves takes so many pains to show that the movie is set in 1983 that the references begin to feel like a sledgehammer of pop culture trivia. Using a title card at the movie’s opening (unnecessary, really; the setting is obvious from context, but title cards are so ubiquitous in movies these days that I’ve resigned myself to their use) and setting the scene of Owen’s and Abby’s first “date” in a video arcade established time and place with the right degree of subtlety, a degree thus ruined by repeated references to eighties pop songs, from David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” (Really? That’s the song Reeves and composer Michael Giacchino decided to go with? Sure, it was popular, but it almost movies the movie into the territory of Joe Dante’s The Howling, where werewolf references were thrown into every scene.) Abby’s feeding scenes should convey the same sense of feeding as a predator attacking prey, but the CGI rendering of these frenzies comes off as more comical than scary.
Had Reeves no love for the Alfredson’s movie (or Lindqvist’s novel), one could dismiss this remake as not only pointless but deeply cynical as well. Instead, because Reeves (who also wrote the screenplay) has attempted to film his version with great respect and enormous care to both sources, and because its story, not of innocence lost but of victims and victimizers, retains the original’s powerful resonance, Let Me In remains nothing less than watchable, even if it never matches Let the Right One In‘s subtlety. It’s slickly professional and never completely soulless. Those who are willing to let it in will be surprised. As remakes go, it’s certainly one of the better ones, even when it apes its source. But the overriding question, the one that trumps all of those the movie raises, never leaves the viewer’s mind: why do it in the first place?