Let Me In (2010, Matt Reeves)
I’ve always found movies starring child actors to be dicey projects. Few actors as young as Let Me In co-stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz can carry a film with sufficient gravitas and maturity that older performers can rely on, but sometimes a movie comes along that catches the viewer by surprise with some unexpectedly good work by child actors. For my money, if the actors can pull off a stellar show which is rich in human drama and emotionally complete, then as an avid movie goer I can only sing but the highest of praise.
Matt Reeves, whose previous big effort Cloverfield left this reviewer rather cold, returns with a dark and deliciously twisted love story which is tightly wrapped with the coatings of a brooding horror film. Told with an almost lyrical sensibility through the eyes of Owen, a 12 year old boy played by the aforementioned Kodi Smit-McPhee, who falls prey to young love when smitten by Abbey (Chloe Moretz), who moves in next door in their very middle-lower class apartment building in the dead of winter…in New Mexico. It is certainly on off-kilter choice of geographical setting for a story that takes place during the winter, but that only enhances the chilling enchantment of Reeve’s film. Abbey lives a sheltered life with her adoptive father (Richard Jenkins), whose life it seems revolves around serving Abbey’s very unorthodox needs. Abbey, the audience quickly learns, is a vampire who must feed off of human blood in order to remain alive. Owen does not know this at first, and after an awkward first encounter in the courtyard of their apartment complex, he and the girl soon feel a strong emotional attachment with one another, for good or ill.
Let Me In is what a good horror should be. On a more plain level, it is what a ‘good movie’ should be, but let us confine our discussion to the horror genre for the purpose of this review. I watched another fantastic horror film recently, The Descent, which itself was something of a ‘slow burn’ until absolute mayhem reigned during that movie’s final stretch. Let Me In also has a monster that preys on regular people, but it is a wholly different film in that it opts to preserve its deliberate pace throughout because it knows that what aspect is truly sitting on the driver’s seat: the budding love between Owen and Abbey. There are a number of elements that caught my attention during this film, but at its center are the two leading performances. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Owen with a young innocence that feels genuine at all times. As a loner at school and the target of some terrible bullying, he is desperate to find a connection with anybody. His world is growing far too removed from everybody else. His parents are divorced and his mother’s religious devotion doesn’t rub off him, so when Abbey comes along, it feels like the greatest thing ever. When alone, he explores the lives of the other people living in the apartment complex via the telescope in his room. It is a weird habit, but then again, Owen, as an outcast, isn’t living the perfect life either, so anything seems to go with him in terms of solitary activities. Abbey is without question an outcast herself, constantly living in shadow and dependent on her guardian for red juice. In many ways they are worlds apart, but somehow the two of them click like peanut butter on bread. A match made in heaven if one were to ask Owen, even though one of the them would be considered by many to be a creature straight from hell. Smit-McPhee plays the part with the longing one would expect from a lonely kid in his situation. It’s pretty easy to feel sorry for him, and while part of that has to do with the script, a lot was resting on the actor’s shoulders, so much credit should go to him as well. Chloe Moretz, who took a lot of people by surprise with her audacious performance in Kick-Ass earlier this year, equals Smit-McPhee with her delicate performance as Abbey, a strange version of a young girl also in need of a connection with someone, but who is trapped in the body of nightmarish monster. She is a bit more emotionally shut off than her counterpart (her condition probably has a little something to do with that), but the moments when she lets Owen in are very sweet. She knows how to balance the charming with the brooding and has some great timing. She is still very young, but already displaying an impressive gift as a skilled actress. Watch for this little one in the future. We’ve spent so much time on the two leads that we haven’t even touched upon Elis Koteas, who plays a cop investigating the recent series of murders without really knowing the truth behind it all, nor Richard Jenkins, who is Abbey’s father figure of sorts who venture into the night to capture fresh blood. Of course, their Elias Koteas and Richard Jenkins, are you expecting poor performances from them?
Great acting can do a lot to help a film, but there is a lot more in favour of Let Me In than acting alone. I mentioned briefly that Reeves’ picture moves at somewhat of a languid pace, but rather than hold the story back, it enforces it. Very little time is allocated to the more traditional horror genre concepts such as murders and tension, although both are present and work effectively. The relationship between Owen and Abbey is what drives the film, much to its credit. There are some small hints at thematic resonance, what with Owen’s mother being particularly religious, president Reagan appearing on the television to speak about evil empires, a conversation Owen has with his father over the phone about the existence of evil , which is one of the best scenes in the movie because Owen knows he can’t reveal what he is really getting at, otherwise he risks whatever friendship he might have with Abbey. These added touches are put to good use, not because they help the audience put the Owen-Abbey love story into context and feel forced, but quite contrary. They give the central romance a fairytale quality, maybe even a mythical quality. Had Owen woken up at the film’s end to realize it was all a dream wouldn’t have surprised me in the least, although I am quite thankful that such a conclusion does not occur because it makes the story even better.
Reeves’ film sports a great visual style to boot. Many of the scenes are showered in a very warm, golden light that feels diametrically opposed to much of what is happening on screen, both thematically and in terms of plot. But what might look like a bizarre stylistic choice at odds with what is transpiring on screen is yet another example of the movie’s intelligence in getting at the emotional core of the story. The plot is weird, the characters are sad, the death sequences are grotesque, but the audience still has this sweet and totally unorthodox love tle around which everything revolves. Despite what one might conclude, there is some happiness resting deep beneath the layers of horrors, and that happiness cannot be vanquished not matter what is thrown at Owen or Abbey. The lighting choices for Let Me In are fantastic to say the least, as are the camera movements, which are far more subdued and subtle than what most audiences are accustomed to these days.
I don’t go into movies looking for faults, but I will admit that when I leave a theatre room after viewing something I felt was great, I sometimes stop and wonder if anything about the movie that rubbed me the wrong way, just to get solid hold on things and put things into perspective. You know, to keep things real. I did this same practice after watching Let Me In, and nothing came to mind. It is the best American horror film in quite some time and one of the year’s best films, period.