Pre-adolescent angst has rarely been as eerie or unsettlingly honest as it is in director Tomas Alfredson's stylish, psychologically complex tale of friendship between a tormented schoolboy and his new neighbor -- a reclusive 12-year-old girl who isn't exactly what she appears to be. Adapted from the popular novel by author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay, Let the Right One In is one of those rare genre films that uses fantasy not as a means to its own ends, but as a springboard to exploring topical issues and mature themes that might come off as clichéd if explored within the restraining confines of a real-world setting. What we get, instead, is a thoughtfully plotted adult fable that builds quiet momentum while winding toward a true stunner of a climax that will literally leave you breathless.
Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a smart kid, though his morbid interests and limited social skills make him something of an outcast among his classmates, as well as a tempting target for one particularly pitiless schoolyard bully. Largely ignored at home, where he quietly passes off his bruises as playground accidents, Oskar soon strikes up a friendship with his mysterious neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), who appears seemingly out of nowhere one night in their moonlit apartment-complex courtyard. At first Eli claims that under no circumstances can she and Oskar be friends, though her initially steely resolve seems to weaken significantly after a few more encounters in the courtyard and a revelation by Oskar that the picked-upon boy has never felt comfortable sharing with his emotionally distant parents. But as Oskar attempts to summon the courage needed to strike back at his tormentors, something unusual is happening around town; there's a serial killer on the loose -- a homicidal maniac with an insatiable bloodlust. As the locals attempt to identify the killer and Oskar makes a shocking discovery about Eli, the time comes for the frightened boy to weigh his fears against his instincts while taking his tenuous first steps toward manhood.
As with many page-to-screen translations, Let the Right One In at times feels slightly compromised for the sake of streamlining the story: Who is Eli's gruff caretaker, and how did their relationship come to be? What has driven Oskar away from his parents, and why are they so quick to accept his transparent excuse regarding the painful-looking cut on his cheek? Yet rather than leaving us frustrated, these tantalizingly vague omissions allow viewers to fill in the gaps with their imagination while Alfredson and Lindqvist focus on Oskar's connection with Eli, and the manner in which the two outcasts find comfort in one another's company as the threats to both continue to grow increasingly dire. Oskar and Eli may be sympathetic victims of circumstance, but that doesn't mean that either of them is entirely innocent and benevolent, and it's this strange, slightly unsettling dynamic that infuses Let the Right One In with the compelling air of menace as the film winds to its unpredictable showstopper of a conclusion. As the knife-wielding schoolboy who may know a bit too much for comfort about crime scene investigation, screen newcomer Hedebrant manages the formidable feat of making the audience care for Oskar even after the character revels some alarming traits, while Leandersson shines equally bright in her big-screen debut as Eli, the complex character whom fans of the film are sure to debate over for years to come.
Though subtlety and atmosphere may be two of the key factors that help distinguish Let the Right One In from a vast majority of jump-cut-laden adolescent vampire flicks, the filmmakers don't shy away when the time comes for all hell to break loose. Not only does that stylistic decision allow cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema the chance to get a little creative during some of the film's more intense sequences, but it also helps to make the violence all the more effective when it actually occurs onscreen, skillfully laying the groundwork for a beautifully executed payoff that will nudge Let the Right One In into near-classic territory for many. And while Johan Söderqvist's achingly maudlin score occasionally negates some of the film's finer subtleties by dictating emotion to the audience, that one minor creative misstep is hardly enough to prevent Let the Right One In from being one of the most challenging and satisfying vampire films in recent memory.