Sunday, September 26, 2010

EIFF: Let Me In

Near the beginning of Let Me In, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the March of 1983, Ronald Reagan appears on a television in mid-speech. He’s giving the infamous “evil empire” address, and the film turns on the moment when Reagan quotes de Tocqueville. “America is good,” he says. “And if ever America ceases to be good—”

The film cuts away at the crucial moment, letting the unfinished thought hang over us like a knife waiting to drop. The missing line: “America will cease to be great.”

Heavy burden for what is one of the bottom-feeding entities of the American film industry—the dreaded remake of a foreign cult hit—but writer/director Matt Reeves has high ambitions for his version of the much-loved Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. He has clearly thought long and hard about the problems of adapting this story to American soil, and he’s pulled together an excellent cast to make it work (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz as the boy and his vampire, with Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas providing a bit of soul to the supporting parts).

The original’s lonely mood and wintry pall are faithfully aped, and the basic shape of the story remains intact—Owen, a bullied 12-year-old boy with divorcing parents and no friends, develops a relationship with Abby, the new girl next door, who turns out to be an ageless vampire. Where Reeves’ version of this story defines itself is in the details. The wall of Owen’s bedroom—where he taps out morse-code messages to Abby next door—is a giant moonscape, frozen and eternal and empty. His gym teacher, who promises to make Owen strong if he comes to after-school weight lifting, is Russian (American strength during this era being spurred on by perceived Soviet might, this is a particularly nice touch). The Cold War lingers on like the stubborn New Mexico winter.

But it’s that speech from Reagan that registers most strongly. Although the film is less persuasive the more we see of the vampire’s activities (low-budget horror effects are too cheesy for this story’s essential solemnity), it nonetheless remains a rare remake that justifies its existence. Using the original film as a springboard, Reeves meditates upon the “evil empire” speech. Late at night, after witnessing Abby brutally savage a neighbourhood woman, Owen tearfully calls up his father and asks, “Do you think there’s such a thing as evil?” You can find Reagan's reply in part of his speech to the National Association of Evangelicals that remains unquoted in film: “There is sin and evil in the world.”

Notice: this isn’t just a matter of evil, but sin. Owen’s mother is devoutly religious, and God dwells inside the story like a wraith, on the dresser in a picture of Jesus watching Owen steal money from his mother’s purse, in the schools lurking inside the pledge of allegiance. Reeves has injected a good dose of old-fashioned American religion into the original story, opening up new possibilities in an already richly suggestive premise.

One of the chilling things about Reagan’s speech was how he used religion to bolster the image of himself as leader of a righteous nation, beset by evils both without (the evil empire) and within (abortion, the less famous but almost more frightening part of the speech). It’s the notion of evil that drives the nation into his cold arms; it’s the fear of evil that leaves people seeking refuge in dreams of power. And Abby, more than anything else, is Owen’s dream of power, his escape from isolation, from terror, from the bullies that loom in his mind as the greatest threat in the world.

Abby destroys Owen’s tormentors, but it’s not quite clear if he fully understands at what price this release has come. There’s a brief flicker of awareness, though, in one of the most painful scenes in the film. Owen enters Abby’s apartment after the disappearance of the man we assume is her father. (He is actually her servant, a weary old soul with cracked glasses and a dead expression finding fresh blood for the vampire’s hunger.) On a table, Owen finds an old picture, in faded sepia tones, where Abby is next to a young boy with large glasses. The look of horror Owen gives her in that moment is perhaps the only time he sees her truly. But he still returns to her, and he still chooses her. Reagan’s prophecy comes true, and the evil empire is real. Its anthem is tapped out in frail, desperate code, and its borders stretch from an empty room beneath a New Mexico street to the surface of the moon itself.

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