“Squeal like a pig.” The command has become familiar to Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant). Each day his classmate Conny (Patrik Rydmark) approaches after school, inflicting some new cruelty with the help of a coupe of classmates. Exceptionally pale and blond, Oskar sets his face in a sort of beatific mask, his cheeks translucent in the fading winter light, eyes closed and lips barely trembling. Conny bears down, instructing his fellows to beat the victim with a switch, poke his nose, press him against cold walls.
All seems bleak for Oskar at the start of Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in). Living in Stockholm, circa 1982, he makes his way home to the small apartment where he lives with his inattentive mother and gazes out his window. From here, looking down on the complex’s courtyard, he spots Eli (Lina Leandersson), coatless in the snow, alone on what’s left of a playground jungle gym. When he musters the courage to speak to her, she puts him off: “Just so you know,” she says, her dark eyes wide, “I can’t be your friend.” Oskar responds in standard self-protective mode — “Are you so sure I want to be your friend?” — but Eli has already left the frame, so that he is left standing alone, again, in the gentle icy wind.
Repeatedly, the kids appear in approximate split screens, their lives separate as they come closer to each other. While these early moments rightly suggest that Tomas Alfredson’s film will follow Oskar and Eli’s evolving friendship, they are cut into other scenes, less regular. These scenes show another routine, undertaken by the mournful Håkan (Per Ragnar), as he packs gas mask, knife, and ropes into a case and heads out into the woods. Here he finds his own victim, a young man, whom he proceeds to eviscerate and hang upside down from a tree, so that his blood drips into a jug that Håkan dutifully takes back to his apartment for Eli. She’s a vampire, you see, and he keeps her nourished.
But hers is no ordinary vampire movie. It is more a reconsideration of childhood, skewed. Oskar’s family is dysfunctional in familiar ways: his mother (who tends to appear as a torso or legs in the frame, passing through) resents his father, with whom the son spends weekends in the country, along with dad’s boyfriend. Eli’s unit is less usual: it’s not entirely clear how Håkan and Eli are related — he may be her father, he may be her boyfriend, once 12, as she is forever, and now aged, as he has supplied her with blood for 50 years — it is clear that they share a deep, enduring pain. When Håkan’s latest foray into the night is cut short by a pair of passersby (with a white poodle who trots over to the body and begins snuffling in the bloody yuck) and he returns home bloodless, he apologizes to Eli. “You’re supposed to help me,” she says, pacing the floor, “Do I really have to take care of this myself?” When she does, in fact, “take care of it,” Eli’s assault on a neighbor is brutal and cruel — worse than the bullies at Oskar’s school might ever imagine. Feigning frailty in the shadows of an underpass, she calls out for help, until Jocke (Mikael Rahm) gathers her tiny body into his arms, promising he will carry her to safety, or at least a phone so she might call someone. Before he can take a step toward the light, the child throws her arms and legs around him, tearing at the kindly man’s throat as he gags and gasps in horror.
If the display of violence is to be expected in a “vampire movie,” the particular framing is striking. The camera maintains a discreet sort of distance during the attack (dark figures flailing), then comes close enough to display Eli’s bloody face as she looks over her shoulder, sated and guilty. At the same time, the film reveals a third party, yet another neighbor, named Gösta (Karl Robert Lindgren), who hurries home to his apartment filled with cats in order to ponder the horrible crime he has witnessed.
Gösta’s efforts to make sense of the sudden change in his world take a different form than Oskar’s. While Gösta talks with his friends, debating and assessing possible meanings, reshaping their dread into a rationale or vengeance (“I’d like to tear that damn kid limb from limb”), Oskar seeks a subtler understanding. His early conversations with Eli in the courtyard are framed to indicate their tentative mutual desire and fear. He appears in sharp focus, the camera over her blurred shoulder as she perches on the jungle gym, or when the angle reverses, Eli appears either starkly clear or indistinct, a shape behind him, enticing and weird. On learning that she is “12, more or less,” Oskar offers his own self-description by contrast: “12 years, eight months, and nine days,” he pronounces, as if the precision is in itself a virtue.
As Oskar comes to find out, however, Eli embodies a murkier morality. When Oskar deduces that she is a vampire (“I live off blood, yes,” she says, though she is not, as he guesses, “dead”), he sees in Eli an ideal capacity to re-order his own miserable existence. She cuts off this way of thinking, however, instructing Oskar in shades of violence. “I don’t kill people,” he asserts,” though, as she points out, “You’d like to, to get revenge, right?” When Oskar nods, she explains, “I do it because I have to.”
While her contention is surely generic (how many other vampires have said exactly this in other movies?), it is also a revelation for Oskar. “Be me for a little while,” she invites him, even pleads with him, as if hoping that someone else might bear her burden. When she does accidentally create another vampire (being forced to leave a victim alive), the moral options become clear (the new vampire, an adult, chooses suicide rather than the “infection”). It’s not clear how long Eli has “lived off blood,” but her parameters for what’s right and wrong are less conventional, or maybe conventional in other ways.
The loyalty that develops between Oskar and Eli has as much to do with life and death, generosity, sacrifice, and kindness (however perverse) as the relations among the adults. If Oskar cannot “be” Eli, he can appreciate her loneliness and alienation (in this, she is much like any 12-year-old outcast). When they share a tender kiss, following her assault on yet another intrusive adult, they look at one another in wonder. The shot again indicates more than the children can articulate: as they gaze into the seeming mirrors of one another’s faces, their mouths smeared with the victim’s blood, their eyes soften and they look, at last, close, their fates entwined in ways they can’t anticipate.