*Let Me In (R)
Carmike 10, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Purists, in general, are a bore. Whether their bailiwick is baseball, visual art or film, they can be depended on for their arms-folded, brows-furrowed insistence that certain things just are not done.
Take American remakes of non-English language films, for example. For film purists, the mere notion is scandalous, and they'll have a list at the ready of the innumerable cases where Hollywood completely destroyed the original.
So prepare for a case of the vapors, gang: Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) didn't just re-do Tomas Alfredson's much-lauded 2008 vampire drama Let the Right One In when he made Let Me In. He did it better.
Frankly, not much of the improvement is a function of Reeves' filmmaking skills. As screenwriter, he retains the story nearly beat for beat: Owen (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 12-year-old in 1983 Las Cruces, N.M., is isolated by his parents' recent separation and bullied at school. His new next-door neighbor, Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), is also 12 — "more or less," she qualifies. That's because she's an ageless vampire, her thirst for blood handled by her middle-aged caretaker (Richard Jenkins), until circumstances force Abby more out into the open.
The 1980s setting is a curious decision, and at times Reeves seems far too enamored with underlining it — look, Owen and Abby are bonding over Ms. Pac-Man and Rubik's Cube! Reeves also tries to take his Reagan-era America and overlay a subtext involving religious fervor, the definition of "evil" and fear of Satanist cults, but it all ends up feeling fairly forced. Otherwise, he sticks close to the original, right down to individual scenes.
We see the methodical bloodletting that Abby's "father" employs to collect her meals, as well as the ferocious, animalistic attacks by Abby herself that use some sketchy visual effects. Some he handles better, like the arrival of a police officer (Elias Koteas) at Abby's apartment; some he handles worse, like his variation on Let the Right One In's brilliant swimming pool sequence. And some he wisely abandons altogether, like the famously risible killer CGI-cat attack — and, not surprisingly, a particular moment of nudity that would have been hard for the American multiplex audience to stomach.
But his real brilliance comes in casting his leads. Moretz has demonstrated beyond-her-years self-possession in (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass, and it's no surprise to find her selling the existential loneliness of a lost soul. But Smit-McPhee is more than a match for her, simply terrific in his confused quest for connection, sympathetic and at times even scary when he acts out his anger by play-acting at being a violent killer rather than a victim. Reeves wisely quiets down the music and allows many of their scenes to play out in mournful silence, emphasizing a heartbreak pairing of doomed — perhaps even damned — first love. And when we see Owen making a choice between the morality he thinks he knows and his only true friend, it's both beautiful and chilling.
They're so good, in fact, that in retrospect Reeves' small blunders seem smaller, and his impressive moments felt stronger. For all their moments of explosive violence, both the original and Let Me In are terrific character stories — and when you have two extraordinary young actors anchoring that story, it can only improve. Just be willing to let that idea in, purists.