That’s not lingonberry jam.
December 4, 2008
Over the last few years, RottenTomatoes.com has become my main source for movie reviews. Like other sites that aggregate information on the web, such as Slate’s Today’s Papers, Metacritic, and Five-Thirty-Eight (but definitely not Baseball Prospectus), RottenTomatoes is an excellent resource because it provides a concise summary of reviews, in the form of a “percent fresh” rating, as well as links to full reviews. While resorting to algorithms might dismay film buffs, as a steadfast fan of cinema with limited time, I’ve found that the fresh rating is often a good starting point to avoid the obvious dross.
When the tomato-meter identifies a film as universally panned, it does so with tremendous accuracy. But accepting a “fresh” rating without much follow-through is more fraught. After a friend asked me to see Wanted over the summer, I quickly glanced at its rating (in the mid-seventies), and figured that if most of the critics surveyed liked it, I probably wouldn’t mind that it was an action movie. I was wrong. Had I read the first sentence of almost any of the positive reviews, I would have learned that “it’s a fun movie… if you can laugh at bullets traveling through people’s foreheads in slow motion,” or “a great film… but remarkably misogynistic.” Thus a mid-level “fresh” rating should be read as a recommendation with reservations.
One would hope that a fresh rating so high that it qualifies as “universal acclaim,” should be pretty unambiguous. This isn’t to say that we should ignore criticism of a film like Rear Window (100% fresh), but that even without the preparation of a critical analysis, the average viewer should be confident that they are about to watch a good, consequential film. So when I sidled up to my local arthouse theater and saw that the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, had an astronomical rating of 98% among the site’s top critics (compared to the paltry 90% awarded to the Shawshank Redemption), I knew I was in for one finely woven tapestry of film*.
Let the Right One In begins hauntingly, with lone, 12 year-old Oskar staring out a window into the dark, dreary courtyard of his apartment complex. Quiet and insular, Oskar is abused by his classmates and neglected by his well-meaning but largely absent parents. Rather than being melancholy or sad, Oskar is simply quiet, and as he retreats to the courtyard, his placid expression belies his pasttimes of collecting morbid newspaper articles and stabbing a tree as a stand-in for his bullies.
However, Oskar is interrupted by the appearance of Eli, a girl his age who has moved into an apartment across the courtyard. Oskar is only a little surprised by Eli’s unusual statements and habits; she only appears outside at night, underdressed and barefoot; she lives in a boarded-up apartment with a foreboding, middle-aged caretaker; but he does little to press the issue. In turn, Eli does press Oskar to stand up to the bullies at school.
The next day, Oskar fails to assert himself at school, and Eli’s caretaker packs a bag containing a gas-mask, a knife, and a funnel, and sets out to a secluded neck of the woods, where he approaches a lone hiker. As the audience squirms in their seats, he shows the mask to the hiker, and in perfect parallel to Anton Chigurh, asks, “do you know what halothane is?”
While we might have briefly wondered about the bag of equipment, by the time we see the hiker strung up like a deer, we know the purpose of the knife and funnel. When we see actually see them used; however, the film moves from being haunting and mysterious to shocking and horrifying. The body count increases as oafish townsfolk become Eli’s prey, major visual effects are added (some terribly cheesy, others masterful), and the subtlety drains from the film.
The friendship between the two children also begins to lose some of its uncertainty, turning instead into a surprisingly believable and moving romance. Eli is outed as a vampire, her caretaker is eventually caught (and killed by a starving Eli), and her frenzied feedings make her presence in the town too dangerous to sustain. Oskar, too, begins to change, as he finally strikes a bully, and gains a measure of acceptance at school. It seems that the two are sure to part ways, ending a gruesome film with a coda appropriate to happier stories of childhood.
The film redeems itself by ripping this resolution to shreds. Swimming alone at the pool, Oskar is again confronted by the bullies, this time with one of their teenaged older brothers. The teenager pulls a switchblade on him, and offers that if he can stay under for three minutes, he’ll simply nick him, but if he can’t, he’ll take out an eye. Unable to defend himself, and robbed of his potential protector, Oskar is forcibly dunked in the pool, and the camera cuts to his classmates, who gloat at the outlandish retribution.
Back underwater, the camera lingers on Oskars frightened expression as he starts to run out of air. A little muffled sound is heard, and suddenly something red plops into the pool behind him. As he ruefully lets out his last breath, the object bobs around, and we can see that it’s the head of the main bully. The hand holding Oskar down suddenly falls away, dismembered. And as more remains begin to fall in, Oskar is pulled out of the pool, gasping, by a bloodied and smiling Eli.
By the end of the film, Oskar may have completed the adolescent trope of a lesson learned through friendship, but it isn’t the one we expected. He hasn’t matured and grown in society; rather, he has been liberated from his troubles through cold, bloody revenge, and he is all the happier for it. And as the appearance of Eli confirms, whatever future they have together may be happy, but it won’t be benign.
So, Let the Right One In may well deserve widespread praise, but let it be with an appropriate “yes… but.” Yes, it is a disturbing, violent film, but when theaters are filled with adolescent drivel like Twilight, it’s the perfect film to make vampires scary again.
* H/t L. P. Mandrake