An orphan for all practical purposes, 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has been left to sprout like a weed. At home, he gets sparse recognition from his divorcée mother; at school, he absorbs castrating taunts from a pack of bullies who've gleaned "eternal victim" from his spacey stare.
Owen fills the unstructured hours by sucking Now and Laters, fantasizing empowering self-defense scenarios and peeping across the courtyard of his apartment complex. Here, he spies a potential playmate moving in, a girl around his age. Watching her shuffle through the snow in bare feet, led by her embalmed middle-aged guardian (Richard Jenkins), you might suspect they're part of a penitent religious cult. You suspect worse soon after, when the town experiences a ritual murder with vampire tracks.
The setting of Let Me In is Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1983. The feathery, slow-falling snow comes with the material's Scandinavian pedigree: Swede John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In, filmed by Tomas Alfredson in 2008, was a boutique hit enough to attract this American remake by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. Lina Leandersson's mysterious neighbor is replaced by Chloe Moretz's Abby, waifish, home-school-creepy, and even more socially maladjusted than Owen. On the common ground of isolation, they thaw to each other. Unknown to Owen, if not the viewer, is the fact that Abby's trauma has something to do with the killings, which her guardian is seen to be involved in, which she may be a party to and to which Owen, as their courtship deepens, will become an accomplice.
Reeves adopts the International-style flatness of Alfredson's film, a mixture of "philosophical" long shots, brittle scoring, slowed-pulse performances, and blankness passing as clarity. In an opening that assigns Elias Koteas's cop to investigate the killings, it's clear this will be a movie with lots of dialogue pitched as if there's a colicky infant sleeping in the next room. Reeves's alterations include feeding the plot through Koteas's police-procedural and a Significant Effect in which Owen's Mom is seen always with her face just out of frame or as an out-of-focus blur. His greatest addition shows off his knack for action-verisimilitude, a suspense scene culminating in a sustained one-shot inside a getaway car as it backs over an embankment, so perfect and jarringly felt you want to bust out clapping when it's done.
Lindqvist's novel and its permutations are akin to the Twilight franchise in their marriage of "doomed young lovers" and vampire tropes. But where Steph Meyer preaches abstinence, Let Me In keeps its hungry carnivores well fed, as meek Owen gets a confidence boost from supernatural protection, on the way to a grisly Revenge of the Nerds.
Americanizing the material, Reeves contextualizes the story squarely in Moral Majority country. Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" address plays prominently during Let Me In's prologue. Owen's Mom's chintzy Christian decor and grace over silent dinnertimes are presented as further evidence of the all-encompassing lameness of '80s flyover, where the only joy is smuggled in on vinyl, on the forgotten LPs from Freur and the Greg Kihn Band, who Owen and Abby illicitly enjoy.
If irreligious, Let Me In believes in the sanctity of suffering, with close-ups of Smit-McPhee swallowing his shamed tears to the Northwest Boychoir. The child performances are credible, likewise the feel for pubescent isolation and vulnerability. But Reeves's measured style barely conceals a pandering Young Adult sentimentality as the movie approaches ultimate comeuppance for Owen's tormentors — wish fulfillment without the elan of Piranha 3D's douchebag mass slaughter, facile compared to the irony of Massacre at Central High or the head-on collision of morbid faith and polyester pop in Carrie, two movies that anticipated suburban-school killings instead of skating around their consequences.
Let Me In is a slow build-up to irreparable action, to Owen and Abby's joining paths as a fatal couple. There is no fork in the road for Owen along the way. He is given nothing to leave behind. And there is scant indication that the rest of humanity is anything more than livestock for sensitive souls to feed on. There's a human tragedy somewhere here — but aggrandized puppy-love romance and stylish revenge fantasy are all that lingers.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.