“Would you still like me, even if I wasn’t a girl?” Hearing this question from Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), the best girl he’s seen in his 12 years, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is dumbfounded. He’s already told her he likes her, “a lot,” a profound declaration at that age. He’s also just seen her be sick, wretching up the Now & Later candy she’s eaten to please him. This one-two punch, adoring her and feeling responsible for her, has left Owen smitten. She’s his perfect girl, even if she’s not a girl.
Still, Abby’s question hovers in Let Me In, much as it did in Let the Right One In, the first film of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s book, directed by Tomas Alfredson. But if she’s concerned that Owen might not still like her if he learns she’s a vampire, Owen’s worries about what defines boys and girls are more mundane, if still deeply troubling and sometimes quite alarming for him. His parents have recently split, he’s living with his mother (Cara Buono, whose face is studiously obscured or out of frame in every shot), and being bullied at school. Fearful, enraged, and essentially undone whenever Kenny (Dylan Minnette) calls him a “girl,” Owen practices his retort in his bedroom mirror, holding a knife and taunting himself — pale, androgynous, painfully thin — with precisely that epithet. “You scared?” he asks himself. Reflected and tormented, he’s a “girl,” the worst thing he could be.
Owen’s frustration and lack of answers are hardly unique. It’s no surprise that Kenny is also damaged (an older brother uses the same language on him as he uses on Owen) and Kenny’s two buddies, seemingly eager to serve him, are visibly afraid too. As Owen tries to sort out what it means to be a girl or a boy, he seeks guidance from a distracted phys-ed teacher, retreats from his mother (who drowns her own misery in wine and repeats religious platitudes), and shares only one wholly disappointing phone conversation with his unseen dad. (In Alfredson’s movie, the father is living happily with a new partner, a man, another source of confusion but also solace for the son in search of rules regarding gender and sex; in this movie, set in 1983 Los Alamos, that alternative model is impossible.)
In lieu of adults who might watch over him, Owen watches his neighbors through the windows they conveniently leave open. Peeping into these tantalizing other lives, he sees one young man lifting weights, Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (of all songs) pulsing in the background, and another seducing his girlfriend after they’ve been fighting. Such observations suggest that successful men take control — of their bodies or their lives in some way — but Owen has no space where he can even imagine taking that step, until he begins meeting Abby in their building’s snowy courtyard, perching on the bars of a jungle gym as they ask about each other’s age and background. When she advises him to “hit back” against Kenny, to “hit back harder than you dare,” Owen is moved. It’s the first time anyone has even heard his fears, let alone responded.
Abby becomes even more compelling when Owen hears her arguing with the old man (Richard Jenkins) who looks after her. From Owen’s perspective, the old man is weak and Owen-like, Abby fearless and stern. Still, they share an intimacy that’s both well-worn and full of tension, a closeness and urgency unfathomable to Owen as he observes them from his window or listens to them argue through the wall. You see the pair as he doesn’t, as the old man goes hunting for blood for his beloved, putting human victims to sleep with ether and then hoisting them upside down to drain their blood, while Abby seethes in her room, her own window covered over with cardboard and blankets.
When the old man falters (because he’s old or because, as he laments, “Maybe I just want to get caught, maybe I’m just tired of this”), Abby ventures out in search of food (“I need blood to live,” she finally confesses to Owen). Her assaults are wrenching (and the special effects awkward and unconvincing). She begins with deception, pretending to be a little girl, then ravages her prey, in long, chaotic, noisy images. From both Owen’s perspective and yours — which are decidedly different — Abby is utterly other. While he can never be quite like her, to hit back with exactly her uncontainable force, he can choose to like her.
Or maybe this isn’t a choice either. Matt Reeves’ movie, unlike the Swedish one, is set back in time, in 1983. Owen’s life in Los Alamos is vaguely shaped by the legacy of the Manhattan Project, even though no one talks about it. Instead, the words “Los Alamos” loom on highway signs and institutional logos, the allusion underlined when Ronald Reagan appears on background television, making his “Evil Empire” speech. “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might,” Reagan intones. “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal.”
The film makes plain the difficulty of seeing evil in the experience of a local detective (Elias Koteas), who’s probing the spate of grisly killings that begins when Abby arrives in town. He appears early in Let Me In standing outside a glass door marked “Los Alamos Hospital” as Reagan speaks. Riding through town in his car, pondering his case, the cop listens to Christian talk radio, hosts and callers insisting on the prevalence of “evil” in America and the need to fight back, to take back control.
The corollary to today’s popular, talk-radio-fueled anger is clear. The film both tweaks and fulfills such right-wingy, quasi-religious views by making the most virulent embodiment of evil a little girl. Owen, surrounded by emotional and moral disorder, sees her differently: Abby is his savior, delivering him from the evil embodied by ignorant, fearful humans.
Let Me In is sometimes too neat and too literal. Owen’s fondness for Now & Laters and his school assignment, to read Romeo & Juliet, presage his investment in the endless, ever-dead Abby. But it is also perverse and uneven, aspects most visible in the boy’s face and body. As he changes in the locker room, his back bent and his ribs visible, as he searches his own face for signs of identity, whether girl’s or boy’s, Owen is the movie’s means to contemplate how evil exists, how it’s perpetrated and chosen, by individuals who don’t see it.