Early in Let the Right One In, a young bully asks his victim, “What are you looking at?” Soon we find the victim, a dispassionate boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), fantasizing about turning the question back on his tormentor. His rehearsed vengeance is overheard by the vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson), and well into her courtship of Oskar, she repeats the phrase back to him: “What are you looking at? … Those were the first words I heard you say.”
“What are you looking at?” is only a mundane playground taunt, but the more the question is repeated throughout the film, the more central it begins to seem. Let the Right One In revolves around looking, seeing, watching; its characters are defined by what they look at. Oskar collects newspaper clippings about violent crimes and keeps them in a folder in his room. Because he is drawn to reading about violence, knowing about it, it comes as little surprise that he imagines enacting violent retribution against his bullies. Given the dramatic logic of the film, it seems inevitable that Oskar is drawn into the company of violent people and subsequently becomes violent himself. Like all young people, he is destined to become what he contemplates. It is no coincidence that when Eli crawls into bed with him, she tells him not to look at her – or that the bullies ultimately threaten to cut out one of his eyes.
How apt, then, that director Tomas Alfredson is so careful about what he shows us and what he conceals from the camera’s view. When visually depicted, violence – like sex – is intrinsically powerful, tending to dominate the viewer’s imagination regardless of the artist’s intent. However, though the plot of Let the Right One In revolves around several acts of bloodshed, they are almost always seen from afar or otherwise obscured from view, rendered inaccessible to the audience. When one man is attacked in a bathroom, the door swings shut; the ensuing struggle is not seen, only heard. By holding us at this remove, Alfredson allows bursts of viscera to punctuate his thoughtful atmosphere, but not to disrupt it. The color palette is stark, sparse; the scenery is brutal, sterile. As photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, the film’s Swedish setting is all white, black, and occasional blood-red – Fargo without the midwestern humor and decency.
Johan Söderqvist’s score is quiet, elegiac, mournful, and the film’s emotional palette is as glacial as its aural-visual one. This prevailing mood of silence and stillness befits its subjects. Oskar and Eli are a profoundly reserved pair of twelve-year-olds, rarely expressing more than a sense of impassive resignation as they move through the film’s cold and lonely cosmos. Oskar’s relations with his separated parents are muted. His mother is overprotective, his father overly permissive, and the film grants him no more than a single wordless moment of fleeting happiness with each. Eli’s domestic life is no less withdrawn. The older man who cares for her seems forever tired; going out to kill strangers and drain their blood for her, he prepares a toolkit like a plumber resigned to his lot. There is no bloodlust in his murders; indeed, he lacks enthusiasm so entirely that he blunders through both attempts with seeming little regard for success. After trussing up a potential victim in a locker room, he is cornered and makes no attempt to escape. “I’m trapped,” he mutters without apparent feeling, and disfigures himself with acid to prevent the police from tracing him back to Eli. The film suggests that this loyalty stems from the man’s love for Eli, though it is difficult to shake the suspicion that the nature of this love is not that of a father for his child. When Eli comes to visit him in the hospital, he offers his throat for her to feed upon; once satisfied, she drops him unceremoniously out the window and promptly transfers her affections to Oskar. Though her attachment to Oskar appears sincere, their relationship seems likely to follow the same dismal pattern of devouring and discarding.
One of the film’s earliest images shows Oskar pressing his hand to his bedroom window. The watch he wears looks almost like a manacle, binding him to his mirrored self, and this image is microcosmic of the way the film’s characters withdraw so deeply into themselves that they are unable to reach out and touch the other. Indeed, Alfredson often shows them separated by walls, doors, and windows, through which they try to communicate with one another. Oskar and Eli, who live in adjoining apartments, must learn Morse code to speak to each other during the day, and while their romance is not without a certain eerie tenderness, it does not dispel the film’s pervasive sense of isolation, nor does it finally break the spell of Oskar’s gloomy and insular self-absorption. “Who are you?” he asks. “The same as you,” she replies.
In an excellent review of Spielberg’s Jaws, Joshua Gibbs argues that modern horror follows the pattern set forth by Shelley’s Frankenstein, which “details how death and suffering invariably emerge from sexual deviance.” In particular, Gibbs locates the source of Frankenstein’s horror in Victor’s desire to create a child without sexual congress with a woman – that is, apart from union with the other. Let the Right One In draws much of its power from the same well. The romance between Oskar and Eli is haunted by sexual uncertainty. “If I weren’t a girl, would you like me anyway?” she asks. “I guess so,” he says, and seems undaunted by her insistence that she only wants to “go steady” if everything will remain “as usual.” The reasons for this ambivalence are made clear by a brief glimpse of a scar, pointedly suggesting that she is, in fact, a castrated he. Sexual union is indeed out of the question for the two “young lovers.”
The motives behind this are not solely biological, for the partnership between Oskar and Eli is primarily intellectual in nature. Their most direct displays of affection are bookish ones: a heart drawn here, a message written there. “To flee is life, to linger death,” reads one of Eli’s notes. Relationship to another person implies vulnerability, and the characters keep to themselves accordingly. The other is unsafe; it must be fled from or devoured, contemplated from afar or confined safely to a box. Alfredson shows physical intimacy as sparingly as he shows violence. This is no coincidence; in Let the Right One In, the two spheres are inextricably connected. Love, or its closest equivalent, is inevitably conflated with bloodshed. Before learning that Eli is a vampire, Oskar has the idea to seal their bond with a blood pact. “We’re going to mix,” he says, cutting his hand with a knife and asking her to do the same. Elsewhere, Eli exhorts Oskar to stand up to his bullies by encouraging him to imitate her capacity for violence: “Be me a little.”
Oskar promptly splits the lead bully’s ear with a stick and proudly relates his actions to Eli, but love begets more violence. After Eli kills two of his loved ones, a neighbor comes after her, seeking retribution. After Oskar strikes the lead bully, the gang corners him in the swimming pool and tries to drown him. Again, Alfredson leaves the bloodbath implied; as Oskar is held underwater, the maimed body parts of his tormentors fall into the pool around him. Oskar is rescued by Eli, but love is no solution to violence in the world of Let the Right One In. The two seemingly disparate passions are inexorably woven together, and the film’s haunting power is derived from this monstrous paradox and the perverse, brutal cycles it engenders. The survivors are those who remove themselves. Only one bully – the one who shrinks away, covering his eyes – is spared from the slaughter. Perhaps a better title would be Let No One In.