It’s clear from watching Let Me In that director Matt Reeves truly loves and respects the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, which is also based on the same 2004 novel by Ajvide Lindqvist. But respect is a tricky thing and taken too far, respect turns into reverence. Then reverence in turn becomes fear, a fear that by altering something which is already good you may in some way diminish it. That kind of fear can be paralyzing and as a director Matt Reeves seems paralyzed. Reeves respects Let the Right One In perhaps a little too much and though he claims that his film is based on the novel and is not in fact a remake of the cult hit Swedish film, the movie he’s made says otherwise. The movie he’s made is absolutely a direct remake of the 2008 film, the two are so similar that it’s almost impossible to differentiate between them. Reeves’ take is masterfully well done, but it’s not because he’s put his own stamp on it. Let Me In is good because Let the Right One In is good, and Reeves simply made the same film, only slightly better. They’re nearly identical, right down to their bones.
Even the setting is the same. Though there’s some attempt to establish the time and place as distinctly American, the occasional Ronald Reagan television address feels half-hearted. The snow covered, cramped housing could just as easily be Sweden. Yet in theory the movie takes place in 1983 at a Los Alamos, New Mexico apartment complex where a 12-year-old boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives with his mother and struggles with the problems of school, bullies, and his parents’ recent divorce. A new girl named Abby (Chloe Moretz) moves in next door. In appearance she’s 12 but we soon find out that she’s much, much older. She lives with a man who appears to be her father, but we suspect is anything but. At night The Father, played brilliantly by a worn and depleted Richard Jenkins, leaves Abby home alone while he finds a way to feed her. Unfortunately for him, Abby only eats blood.
The Father is one of the biggest changes in Reeves’ take on this story and Jenkins’ moments are some of the best seen on screen this year. Though he barely speaks in his all too few moments on screen, Jenkins conveys a sense of weariness and affection with the shrug of his shoulders. His killing scenes convey an internal struggle, the sense that though he’s long since resigned himself to his fate, he still feels guilty about it. One of his murders in particular will stick with you, haunt you long after the film’s over, set to the eerie soundtrack of a blaring car radio.
Owen befriends Abby and begins to suspect something’s not right about her, but he’s desperate for friendship. His parents’ divorce has left him isolated and at school he’s being physically assaulted by a gang of kids. This is a boy so desperate for companionship it’s easy to understand why he might not mind if the girl who’s hanging out with him is actually a vampire. In Abby Owen believes he’s found a kindred spirit, and the blood on her face, to him it’s almost as though it isn’t real.
Visually Reeves has taken the glossy, dark style of the original movie and kept it, while adding a few of his own tricks. He plays with his camera more, films behind objects, blurs things in the background to increase the feeling of alienation we sense from Owen. Let Me In is a stunningly beautiful film and if there’s criticism to be level here, it’s only that Reeves didn’t take it further by abandoning the visual style and tone of Let the Right One In entirely, to make it fully his own.
In truth, even as someone who’s seen and loved the original movie, almost all of Let Me In’s best moments are the ones which skew farthest from the way Let the Right One In did it. The scant handful of changes Reeves’ makes to the story and tone of his movie are innovative and interesting, yet all too rare. There’s an even better movie buried underneath this already good movie, a film in which the director abandons his reverence for what came before and makes something wholly original.
Still, I suppose simply producing a faithful recreation of something so challenging and subtle is a real accomplishment. Reeves gets amazing performances from his child actors and successfully establishes a haunting, introspective tone. The fact that they’ve refused to dumb this story down is worthy of praise. Sure, there’s the sense while you’re watching it that maybe Let Me In wishes it had found a way to tell a bigger story, a story about growing up in the 80s, a story about human connections. It never quite gets there. Instead it’s simply a good story told extremely well. If you haven’t seen that other movie this will be a revelation. If you have seen and loved that other film you’ll walk away unsurprised but ultimately happy that they had the sense not ruin it, if not the courage to significantly improve upon it. Let Me In may not be its own movie, but it’s good just the same.