(by Dustin Putman
In 2008, critics and audiences—you know, those not turned off by subtitles—went gaga over Tomas Alfredson's lyrical coming-of-age vampire movie "Let the Right One In." It's a well-made, even affecting, film, but one that was a little overrated. Besides not being particularly scary—it was billed as a horror picture, after all—there was an underlying chilliness to it that had nothing to do with its wintry, snow-drenched setting. Even as the love story between the two 12-year-olds leads—one of them who had been twelve for a long time—was about as unexpectedly gentle and honest as a relationship could be that involved serial killing and bloodsucking, they stood at an emotional distance from the viewer. This is not the case with the resolute—and dare it be said, superior—American remake, "Let Me In," which burrows deeper into the characters' points-of-view to find the achingly true pangs that come with both growing up and having no choice but to remain the same. Whereas the previous version was sweet in its own way, this one is, at once, genuinely touching, tragic, and chilling. Article continues below
In the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, circa 1983, an Amish schoolboy has been found brutally murdered. As Ronald Reagan talks on the television about evil existing in the world and the notorious "Satanic Panic" craze heats up, a local policeman (Elias Koteas) takes heed of both and suspects a cult might be involved. For 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), he has his own problems to deal with. Incessantly bullied at school by Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his two sidekicks and dealing with the ramifications of parents who are in the midst of divorcing, Owen daydreams of committing violence against his antagonizers while quietly yearning for a friend. He gets his wish when Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) moves with her father (Richard Jenkins) into the apartment next to his. They first meet on the snow-covered playground outside the building—when Owen asks Abby if she's cold when he notices her not wearing shoes, she responds, "I don't really get cold"—and, despite Abby's initial protests about getting close, are soon something akin to best friends. As Los Alamos is shaken by more mysterious deaths and Owen gains the courage to finally stand up to Kenny's taunts, he begins to suspect—and for good reason—that Abby is no ordinary 12-year-old girl. She may not be a girl, or really twelve, at all.
Based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist and adapted by both the author himself and writer-director Matt Reeves (2008's "Cloverfield"), "Let Me In" is a gripping tale that owes just as much of its inspiration from the original film, "Let the Right One In," as it does from its literary source material. Reeves faithfully borrows certain key shots from the earlier picture—this is no coincidence—and his version follows the same basic plot trajectory. Where the filmmaker excels is in his economical, intelligent tweaks of the narrative—his placement of the story within a specific historical context; his streamlining of unnecessary characters and subplots that would have taken the viewer away from the complicated, sympathetic psyches of Owen and Abby, and his impeccable choices in period details and music compliment the setting. A rule should be made that "The Break-Up Song" by The Greg Kihn Band be in every movie, whether it's set in the 1980s or not. Furthermore, the Now and Later candy jingle, an "It's 10:00, do you know where your children are?" public service television ad, and David Bowie's "Let's Dance" all play sly roles in the proceedings.
The hiring of Greig Fraser (2009's "The Boys Are Back") was also an ace move, the cinematographer gorgeously lensing a winter wonderland turned fatally upside down. Fraser additionally manages the expert feat of shooting his two pre-teen subjects with such a compassionate intimacy that he threatens to pierce their very hearts whilst all the while transforming his camera into an unseen onlooker spying upon their lives. At once tender-hearted and threatening, Reeves' film is a satisfying balancing act between a "Romeo & Juliet"-style love story (Owen reads the Shakespeare play on the bus even as he is about to go through a similar experience) and a ghastly horror tale that draws a fine, sometimes indistinguishable line between light and dark, goodness and malevolence. With Abby needing blood to survive, her father figure disappears into the night, a black trash bag with beady eye holes pulled creepily over his head, in search of fresh victims. A queasily brilliant set-piece in which he attacks a teenage boy in a car outside a convenience store and, in trying to get away, gets into a nasty accident, is showstoppingly elevated through the use of Blue Öyster Cult's "Burnin' for You" and the decision to film the entire crash from inside the automobile.
The casting of young actors to fill the emotionally demanding roles of Owen and Abby must have been a daunting proposition, but director Matt Reeves has struck gold with Kodi Smit-McPhee (2009's "The Road") and Chloe Grace Moretz (2010's "Kick-Ass"). Both are astounding, delivering performances so raw and true they remind of no one less than Jean-Pierre Leaud in Francois Truffaut's 1959 coming-of-age landmark "The 400 Blows." Smit-McPhee devastates as a meek young boy who gets lost spying on the lives of the other residents of his apartment complex to escape from his own. A scene where he calls up his dad on the phone and struggles to find a solace he is no longer getting from either of his parents is remarkably moving. So, too, is the shot of happiness he finally finds in his relationship with Abby. When he asks her to go steady and she agrees, the look on his face says it all.
As Abby, Moretz has an even tougher assignment. Wise beyond her years, vulnerable, seemingly innocent yet capable of ruthless murder, Abby is full of contradictions. She loves Owen, but is she also using him the way she has used her "Father" for the last fifty years? Indeed, she is destined to remain a child for the rest of eternity while Owen ages into adulthood. This knowledge brings a mournful undercurrent to the bond they share, and Moretz and Smit-McPhee seem to fully understand the complexity within their parts. Supporting turns from Richard Jenkins (2010's "Eat Pray Love"), sad as Abby's "Father;" Elias Koteas (2010's "Shutter Island"), in the newly invented role of a policeman sniffing too close to a truth that could seal his fate, and Dylan Minnette (2007's "Fred Claus"), menacingly charismatic as bully Kenny, spouting off the same taunts and put-downs that he receives from his cruel older brother, all impress without stealing the rightful spotlight from Smit-McPhee and Moretz.
With his dad never more than a voice on a phone and his distraught mother (Cara Buono) never clearly captured in full on camera—her face is always either blurred, turned away, or just out of frame—Owen's isolation and disconnect to the grown-ups around him is indelibly felt. He finds the companion he needs in Abby, but it is one that comes with a price he may ultimately live to regret once he gets older and recognizes the cost of the decisions he's made. Until then, the two of them are soul mates. Free of compromise if not consistently of its own individuality—director Matt Reeves owes a lot to "Let the Right One In," particularly a climactic swimming pool scene that is almost shot-for-shot identical—"Let Me In" will have fans of the original questioning this one's purpose until they see it and realize alterations have been made for the better. Altogether more confident and dramatically sound, this is the rare remake that makes a convincing case for existing by exceeding expectations in nearly every way.