Sunday, 13 November 2011

What Happens Tomorrow

I remember a lot of people raving about Let The Right One In when it first came out three years ago, and having finally gotten to see it, I can see why.  It features two very impressive child actors - Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson -  in what can't have exactly been easy roles (Leandersson, in particular, manages to maintain the balance of vulnerability and danger playing a lonely twelve-year old serial killer demands), who manage to carry the film more or less entirely on their own.

This is important because, the occasional tweaking of the vampire myth aside, this is a film almost entirely about how lonely it can be to be a child.  Oskar is almost entirely disconnected from his parents, his father by distance, and his mother by, well, I'm not entirely sure what, but there's definitely some kind of problem (one wonders whether Oskar took his father's side during the split).  Eli, for her part, has only Hakan for company, a loyal assistant who nevertheless has become too old to help her as well as she requires.

(Spoilers follow)

It seems almost inevitable that the two of them will forge a bond, and that's exactly what happens.  What happens next can be viewed on three levels.  Each one is less explicit than the last, but also much more depressing which, of course, is a big part of how good the film is.

On the most obvious, surface level, this is a simple story of two children forming what they doubtless consider a unique relationship.  That's the thing about being a child, everyone and everything you love seems genuinely unrepeatable, and on a level only you, alone in the world, could ever experience.  The fact that Eli is a vampire, and so this friendship may very well actually be unprecedented, just drives the wider point home.  Eli changes Oskar's life, by giving him someone he can open up to and teaching him how to defy the schoolyard bully.  Oskar returns the favour by running away with her, providing her with companionship she has lost with the death of Hakan.

More than that, though, Oskar provides Eli with forgiveness for what she's done, and that's damned important for anyone, let alone a child.  Guilt is a difficult thing for a twelve year old to process (hell, it's difficult for all of us), and the fact that Oskar never really sees Eli actually doing what she does doesn't really matter all that much.

That leads us onto the second level of the film, actually, which is the question of whether Oskar's choice to abandon his mother and follow Eli is really anything other than hopelessly naive.  He knows Eli is a killer, but it's just a dry, meaningless fact, compared to the very real presence of Eli and his feelings for her (compare this with the overwraught "But they're kinda evil!" routines of, say, Buffy or True Blood). She tells him the deaths are necessary, and he's only too happy to believe her.  Because it's simple, and because it allows him to love her without condition.  Back before those awkward teenage years (and often some way into them), everything was all or nothing.  Your brain was developed enough to weigh the evidence - however subjectively - but once the choice is made, every competing idea is dismissed in its entirety.  Maybe this isn't so much a story about how children form bonds the like of which our bile-matured brains cannot possibly understand (until, perhaps, we have children of our own), so much as how such bullet-proof devotion can produce problems all its own.

So we arrive at the third, bleakest possibility.  I've mentioned that Oskar never really sees Eli in action, but he comes damn close at the end of the film, when she eviscerate the bullies who are busy trying to drown him. At that point, her true nature becomes clear, as she pulls him from the water of the swimming pool and up into a charnel house.

By our first theory, this is simply more evidence of the bond between the two.  Eli shows no sign of having fed from those she's killed.  The blood is there, but she ignores it in favour of ensuring Oskar is OK.  In terms of the second theory, we can note how the only time Oskar comes face-to-face with Eli's true nature, it's in the context of her saving his life; once again, it's easy for him to focus on what her actions say about their relationship, and ignore what they imply about her nature.

The third and most cynical reading was that this was part of Eli's plan from the start.

When Eli and Oskar first meet, our dark-haired vampiress is adamant that the two of them can never become friends.  Later on, she relents.  Again, one can interpret this change of heart as being entirely due to the way Oskar presents himself.  But what if it isn't?  What if her desire to form a bond with Oskar comes directly from her realisation that Hakan is too old to be much of a helper and is actually coming dangerously close to being a liability?

What if this is how Eli chooses her helpers?  Hakan begs her to stop talking to Oskar, but is that out of concern for a child's safety, or out of jealousy?   Hakan clearly favours children as victims - is that Eli's wish, is it a recognition that he's getting too old to take down adults in their prime, or is it something more simple - Hakan met Eli as a child, ran away with her as a child, and has watched the only constant in his life remain a child throughout his life. Perhaps he never actually grew out of that childish certainty that all adults (outside one's own family) are best ignored, and that it is only children who can truly be considered "real."

Looked at it this way, Hakan's life was forever retarted, left circling childhood endlessly just like the girl he followed.  Further, and worse, the inevitable conclusion is that Oskar himself has embarked on the same journey, without any thought as to what that might mean.  One more thing about being a child - you manage to convince yourself that things are going to stay the same forever.  Running off with the one person for whom that's true makes a certain horrible sense, but the corollaries are all too obvious.  Indeed, Eli's killing of the bullies was itself only necessary because she insisted Oskar stand up to his antagonists.  Was that simply life advice?  Or a deliberate attempt to start Oskar down a road where she would have to step in and intervene?

All of which means, of course, that it isn't merely a touching, bittersweet and occasionally horrific film; Let The Right One In is also desperately sad.  It's just desperately sad in a way that some people might never even notice.


Gooder said...

I think it's great (unsurprising with it's high pathos factor)

The book if worth checking out too. It adds an extra level of sadness both to Oskar as a trouble young boy and to Hakan who knows he's losing touch with Eli (and is probably what Oskar will become)

The American film version is pretty strong too with central performances as good as the original. The change of setting also gives it slightly different feel which is interesting

SpaceSquid said...

I shall have to check the book out at some point. From what little I could glean from the Wikipedia article, it might well make the most depressing scenario more likely - Hakan's paedophilia and Eli's status as a eunuch could add all kinds of extra ideas about being simultaneously unable to escape one's own childhood and become unhealthily obsessed with actual children.