For my final piece in Killtoberfest 2: Kill Me Twice, Shame On Me, I’m going to cap things off with another in-depth look at the visual strategies of a great horror film. Last year it was The Silence of the Lambs; this year, I’ve chosen Let the Right One In. There will be spoilers, so be warned.
“Keep proper distance. Not too close, not too far. Keep distance.”
– the gym teacher
There are two kinds of great art in film: movies so resolute and powerful in their vision that you are swept helplessly along, and movies whose mysteries remain alluring yet impenetrable long after they have ended. Rarer still are those films which accomplish both at the same time. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is one of those. I have seen it at least four times at this point, and I know as little about it as I did when I first watched it. Perhaps less. Not because I do not understand what the movie is doing, and how, and why; but because each viewing makes me less certain of how my own heart responds to its beauty and its horror.
Purely on the basis of this film and the 2011 John Le Carre adaptation Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, Alfredson is one of the finest adaptors of literature working today. His methods are the same across both films: dense, intricately plotted narratives that work simultaneously as thrillers and as character studies; a faithfulness to the original text that captures the spirit of the work while refining it down into only the most vital elements; art film techniques of withholding or merely suggesting (rather than underlining) expository information; and a fearsomely strong control of cinematography, production design, and editing designed to express complex thematic relationships.
It’s that last that I want to talk about here, because it’s the key to understanding how Let the Right One In perfectly controls our emotional response to what would otherwise be a tonally dissonant work. I’ve been fond in the past of saying that, where the movie’s faithful English-language remake, Let Me In, is a horror story with romantic undertones, the original film is a love story with horror undertones. This is imprecise. Let The Right One In is a horror movie which, through the careful use of direction and cinematography, feels like a romance. How is this accomplished?
I can’t say I’ve actually counted, but I suspect that Let the Right One In has fewer distinct kinds of shots than most comparable movies. It has essentially five which it returns to again and again in service of the emotional problem that concerns the film:
1. The long shot, reserved for victims.
As indicated by the quote at the top, LtROI is about the problem of loneliness and isolation, a problem expressed entirely through cinematography. This first category of shot is used for several reasons, depending on context. One set of shots shows Oskar being bullied, a situation that isolates him from both his peers and his parents (he lies to his mother about what he’s going through, and doesn’t even bring it up with his father); later, Oskar will reverse the visual relationship when he strikes back against them.
That the shot indicates the film distancing itself from victims is reinforced by its use whenever Eli or her caretaker attack. This also serves to (paradoxically) both increase the horror (since you’re using your imagination to visualize what’s happening way over there at the back of the shot) and decrease our sense of the characters’ culpability (since the victim him or herself is de-emphasized, faces hidden, etc, during the attack). We have an intellectual understanding of what they’ve done, but our emotional understanding of it is compromised. This is part of how the film makes Eli seem like a complicated figure and not simply a monster.
One of the final uses of the shot before the long take in the pool (which uses this as a distancing technique, emphasizing Oskar’s importance over the lives of the bullies) is when Eli loses her caretaker. He literally falls away from her, over a cut from what was a connecting shot (see 5) into a telephoto over the shoulder. From lover to victim:
2. The interior shot, showing fractured space.
Why doesn’t Oskar go to his mother for help with his bullying? Because he feels isolated and disconnected from her, as indicated by shots like these. They may live in the same apartment but the camera never places them in the same space, using the walls and angles to divide the two.
The same shot is used to a different purpose with Eli’s caretaker, when parallel lines of action and emotion are dramatized by the divided spaces within the frame. On the left, the old man contemplates suicide; on the right, three teens we don’t know break down the door to rescue their friend. Both sides are in focus, but the left side is closer to us; the result is that, even in an otherwise evenhanded wide shot, our attention and emotional identification is entirely with the would-be killer. This is just one example of the way Oskar and the caretaker are connected throughout the film by the ways in which they are shot and how those shots convey loneliness and isolation from others.
3. Shallow depth of field
Much of the film is either shot with telephoto lenses or using a relatively low f-stop (probably the case with interiors like these) in order to achieve a shallow depth of field that can be manipulated to isolate elements and characters within the frame. In the first shot, Oskar tries to ignore Conny the bully (facing away from him) and embrace his powerlessness while Conny dominates the shot (planting his elbow mock-casually in Oskar’s visual space). The focus here is used to prevent the characters from having an actual connection, emphasizing that their relationship is essentially a violent power dynamic and laying the groundwork for us to be pleased when later the tables are more than turned on Conny and his friends. In the second shot, we see how Oskar is generally isolated from his peers. He’s a weird, quiet, morbid little kid who finds it difficult to engage in school and especially with others; look at the way he lets his long hair hide his face here. This is the shell his relationship with Eli will eventually draw him out of.
Mirroring Oskar, Eli’s caretaker is also isolated from his peers, as in the cafe where he encounters the group of friends Eli will victimize over the course of the film. This scene in particular is a really nice demonstration of Alfredson’s visual strategies when it comes to connection; it opens with an exterior shot setting the caretaker apart via the placement of the window (see shot type 4), then the first shot posted above (type 3). Crucially, Alfredson shoots some of the only real ensemble shots in the movie here, allowing these friends to coexist together in one frame with everyone in focus, using them as an example of the closeness that Oskar and the caretaker are seeking. Later in the scene, one of the friends invades the caretaker’s space by sitting down at his table, forcing his way into the same focal plane as he tries to build a connection (inviting the caretaker to join them for a drink). The caretaker’s response is to refuse to engage (silently drinking his milk, which also breaks the sight line between them, and then leaving).
The caretaker’s problem is that he’s isolated even from Eli; this is apparent even in their first shot, which pans from an isolated (in frame and in focus) close-up of the caretaker to a similar shot of Eli. They’re connected by space and by situation, but they couldn’t be farther apart emotionally. Their relationship will disintegrate over the course of the film; as the caretaker has become too old to successfully secure Eli blood, she also becomes unable or unwilling to give him the love that he desires from her, instead turning her attentions to Oskar. This progression is demonstrated throughout the film using these same strategies; the caretaker is usually seen in tight, isolating close-ups within a shallow focal plane, and when he does interact with Eli, typically she is out of focus (as in the scene where she paces in front of him, raging) or both of them are (as in the shot below where Oskar hears them arguing but the pair are just vague silhouettes in the window).
4. Physical divisions
In these shots, generally exteriors, we see the use of architecture to present the idea of individuals trapped by their environment within their own emotional spaces. Oskar from his neighbors, the caretaker from his victims (here, ironically representing the youth that he has lost over the course of his relationship with Eli). Sometimes these divisions are deliberately erected by those who fear connection; the first thing the caretaker does upon moving in is cover up the window, shutting he and Eli off from the community. Eli is always negotiating the level of separation between her and Oskar, trying to hide the secret of her nature, as when she climbs into bed with him but won’t let him look at her, or in this shot, which reverses the typical human/vampire threshold interaction:
For Oskar’s part, he comes up with ways to communicate through these barriers, most prominently through the use of Morse code to speak to Eli across the literal wall between them:
On the other side of things, the camera takes careful note of times when characters do manage to connect with one another. Sometimes this is as simple as putting them within the same frame and focal plane; other times, the film deploys one of its rare close-ups. Hands are emphasized as people reach out and touch one another. Here you can see the progression of Eli and Oskar’s relationship, which began with the two of them separated within the frame (only one in focus at any given time) but eventually becomes more equal and intimate until, at the end, they share a smile directly across opposing close-ups, each of which begins out of focus but becomes clear as they connect:
The sublime nature of true connection is on display here, the only time so far that Eli and her caretaker are ever together in focus in the frame:
We see how much he truly loves her and desires her love, but the rarity of the gesture is a sad, poignant reminder that their relationship is nearly over. The only other time they’re together is when Eli kills him, an act of predation and love all mixed together.
There are, of course, other types of shots in the film, but by using them sparingly Alfredson is able to accomplish a great deal more than he normally would–for example, the sequence of shots the establish all the information we’ll need later to comprehend the climactic long take given its limited perspective. Each is made more memorable because the shots stand out from the rest of the film.
(There’s no corresponding shot with this last, but it does set up a sound effect–the muffled sound of breaking glass during the pool shot which indicates that Eli, who perhaps came to look one last time at her friend before splitting down, has broken through that barrier in order to directly and violently intervene on Oskar’s behalf.)
Another example of a shot used rarely for great effect is this one:
As far as I know it is the only time in the film that Oskar is shot from below; in this moment (after striking back at his bullies) he has achieved a position of personal power for maybe the first time in his life. This is all the more impactful because Oskar has again and again been depowered and decentralized by the camera; our first time seeing him in school, for instance, shows us only the back of his head:
It’s not until he takes romantic initiative, learning Morse code so he can teach it to Eli, that we see him from a frontal, more neutral angle in the classroom, head up and interested in something:
Another example is the startlingly happy shot of Oskar riding a snowmobile with his father:
Later, once his father ignores Oskar in favor of his drinking buddy, the close up, lonely shot resurfaces:
Is it any wonder Oskar hitchhikes home to Eli?
All of this is centered around Oskar’s perspective, around his loneliness and need for connection. But what about Eli? What does she want? The ambiguity surrounding her character provides the film’s central tension. The only thing we know she needs is blood, a desire that drives many of her scenes (and by extension the scenes of her elderly caretaker). Juxtaposed with sweet, tender moments of connection between Eli and Oskar are two horrific subplots. First, Eli’s caretaker goes out several times to try and secure her fresh blood; both attempts meet in disaster. Second, Eli herself preys on a local group of friends whose comfortable camaraderie is destroyed in the process. The blood motif spreads throughout these scenes, echoed by the use of the color red elsewhere in the film. Both symbolize suffering, whether it’s life drained:
Or a reminder of underlying family tensions:
How does Eli prove herself to Oskar? By suffering for him at the threshold of his apartment:
and by causing others to suffer for him at the pool.
Whether you view these instances as horrifying or romantic is largely up to you. But we’re primed to accept them as romantic because of the direction and cinematography establishing the characters as lonely and isolated, victims and victimizers, within the cold, wintry atmosphere of Swedish adolescence. One final motif establishes this cold environment in which people seek out one another for comfort and warmth (although Eli is cold, too, isn’t she?). Outside of its last shot, Let the Right One In is bracketed by shots of snow falling:
and often pauses to show the snow-covered trees and landscape:
And it’s telling that Let Me In made sure to keep the same wintry atmosphere. Why? Because it’s important that the movie be set in a cold and lonely place. You need someone to care for in such a place; and someone to care for you. Does Oskar find such a person in Eli, someone who can assuage his loneliness and protect him fiercely if need be? Or does Eli find herself a new caretaker, a young boy warped by suffering into someone who will soon be killing for her?
All of the film’s strategies and codes come together in that final shot. We start at the train window (still cold outside, but we’re moving), then pan over to Oskar. At first we fear he is alone:
But then we hear morse code being tapped out, and the shot widens enough for us to see the box Oskar is traveling with:
He and Eli are together, separated by their differing natures but still connected enough to pass messages through the intervening walls.
Also in the frame is Oskar’s luggage, a bright red bag. Suffering and pain will remain with them, the price of connection, whether it’s Oskar’s past that he carries with him as baggage or an omen indicating that the cycle of violence will continue on. Either way, Oskar doesn’t care. The shot is a medium wide, with a large depth of field; no victim here, no loneliness. He smiles in relief. He’s happy. He’s finally let someone in. Whether that someone was the right one is up to you.
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