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Poor Matt Reeves. When the Cloverfield director announced his intentions earlier this year to make a film based on the Swedish novel Let the Right One In, which of course had already been adapted as Tomas Alfredson's masterful Swedish-language film Let the Right One In, seemingly every cinephile in the world lashed back at him with a blind rage. "How dare he!" we all screamed in unison, assuming a hack American director who last made a monster movie would take this delicate, supernaturally tinged childhood love story and make something crass and obvious and stupidly American.
If anything, Reeves has erred in the other direction-- the quiet and often lovely Let Me In so faithfully based on Alfredson's film that some scenes are recreated shot-for-shot, and the film is paced so identically you can't help but refer back to the original in your mind. The ideal viewer for this film is someone who never saw the first film and is willing to accept their vampire love stories much darker and sadder than Twilight; and yet, with its R-rating and somewhat uncomfortable truths about pre-adolescent sexual urges and violence, Let Me In may not reach that many more audiences than the Swedish original.
But even though Reeves doggedly mimics the feel and pace of Alfredson's film, he adds his own Spielbergian touches throughout (he's a J.J. Abrams protege for a reason). From the opening shot of ambulance lights making their way through the distance of a snowy desert, we know we're in a bleak and American landscape this time-- 1983, actually, where Reagan is on TV talking promising that America is not an evil country, and the rise of Christian fundamentalism has kids like Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wondering out loud about the existence of God. Owen lives with his mom (Carla Buono, her face deliberately obscured throughout in only a half-successful gimmick) in a dreary northern New Mexico apartment complex, a lonely kid constantly bullied at school and fantasizing about being a tough guy.
When he first meets the mysterious Abby (Chloe Moretz) in the apartment courtyard she says point blank, "I can't be your friend," but as we see at home she may not have a choice. The man the world knows as her father (Richard Jenkins) is in fact her caretaker and a local serial killer, going out at night to kill and collect blood and feed his vampiric love Abby. Much more explicitly than in Alfredson's film we see that the father once started off like Owen, a smitten young man, and that as Owen and Abby's friendship deepens he heads directly for that fate-- which, given the role model adults he has around him, might not be the worst plan.
Many of the memorable set pieces from Alfredson's film are recreated with precision, including the kids discovering the body under the ice, the father gutting a victim like a deer in the woods, and the unforgettable pool scene. But Reeves tweaks a few of them, adding extra gore and marvelous prosthetics in some places, and staging an entirely new car crash scene that's shot astonishingly well. The visual improvements, though, are the only thing that significantly change the experience of Let Me In from Let the Right One In; you're still feeling the same moods and emotions, anticipating the same bracing violence or heartbreak, taking the same journey with identical characters.
The movie is well-acted down the line-- Smit-McPhee and Moretz are as wide open and natural as their Swedish counterparts, and Jenkins, as ever, is a marvel-- and the movie never shies away from its more violent, disturbing elements, which in some ways makes it a very un-American movie. You've got to admire the efforts and intentions of everyone involved here, but it's hard not to wish Reeves had gone a little bolder, giving us something truly different around the framework of this remarkable, touching story.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.