Making Friends: The Right to Bite in Let the Right One In

I’ve watched Let the Right One In (2008) for what must be the twentieth time, and I find myself once again struggling to understand why critics insist that Tomas Alfredson’s film is, above all, a romance – rather than a meditation on friendship. This is not to say that such categories must be mutually exclusive, and there is certainly evidence to suggest the relationship between Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson) has the possibility of becoming romantic. Nonetheless, the only “kiss” they exchange is in the final scene, tapping out the word in Morse code across the muffling divide of the steamer trunk in which Eli hides away, riding a train to nowhere in particular in the aftermath of what they’ve done together. And the most Oskar ever asks of Eli, shortly after the latter enters Oskar’s room through his window in the middle of the night and curls up naked against him in bed, is that they “go steady,” with Eli as his girlfriend. Eli initially worries that he will need to be let down easy: “I’m not a girl, Oskar,” he confesses, in what could easily have been one of the film’s most salacious moments. Instead, Oskar reacts with a shrug: “Can we still go steady?”

The love story in Let the Right One In has been read from a variety of perspectives – allegorizing feminist, gay, trans, and non-binary / queer revisions of Twilight’s more straightforward erotics – given the complicated and largely tacit history of Eli’s sex. While John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel makes it clear that Eli was castrated by the same vampire nobleman who first turned him into what he is, the film merely shows us Oskar playing peeping Tom as Eli changes out of his blood-saturated clothes, representing his nether regions as a black tangle of stitching and scar that causes Oskar’s to go saucer-eyed and look away quickly. If Oskar’s hopes at anything more happening, whatever that might be, are dashed by this moment of discovery, Eli’s relationship demands still seem quite attainable: “Couldn’t we just keep things the way they are? It’ll be you and me.” Oskar smiles to himself in bed, feeling Eli draw his fingers down the length of his arm and hold his hand. The blood on his lips has hardened into a crimson caulk that Oskar never turns to see.

From the title, one might be forgiven for assuming that the story belongs, in some more fundamental sense, to Oskar. “You have to say I can come in,” Eli whispers from his window, and so he does, upholding a central part of the vampire mythology. His story is certainly the more sympathetic one, the more “relatable.” Abused by classmate bullies, Oskar sticks out for that peculiar androgyny that is the province of late bloomers, features that barely interrupt the cold bloodless mask of his face, framed by an equally sexless pageboy haircut that seems about five centuries out of date even in 1981. Even fully clothed in a kind of cowboy travesty, he’s nothing but skin and bone, a picture of weakness that causes him such self-consciousness that he enrolls in a weight-lifting program at school, albeit with minimal results. He looks like a child allowed to walk out of a medieval tapestry, his pathetic attempts at macho bravura overshadowed by his avian lightness. As Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera captures the wind dusting the snow from tree to tree, it’s a wonder he doesn’t blow away, too.

Centralizing Oskar’s experience casts Eli’s intrusion into his bed as a turning point, and a major open question. In allowing Eli to enter his space, has he actually “let the right one in,” or left himself vulnerable to an inhuman presence? The film endorses (up to a point) a view of Eli as controlling and manipulative. When he arrives on his windowsill, he has just come from drinking the blood of, and then defenestrating, his familiar, Håkan (Per Ragnar). Though to all appearances Eli’s father when they arrive at the Blackeburg housing block where Oskar and his mother live, Håkan was an older man (in the books, explicitly a pedophile) whom Eli retains as a killer. Plying him with sweet caresses and gently rebuffing his jealousy over “that boy” he has begun to go out with, Eli knows that Håkan is beginning to show his age; after Håkan commits a murder in the park but loses his nerve due to passers-by, abandoning his jug of blood, Eli rebukes him in a deep, wet voice that sounds distinctly predatory. Håkan has heard the threats before, offering a meek but perfunctory apology. His next attempt, in which he invades a boys’ locker room, is even more disastrous. Håkan finds himself trying to murder a teenager after the power to the building goes out, panicking as the boy’s friends bang on the windows. Dumping a jug of acid over his face, he finds himself hospitalized and facing criminal charges. In his final act, he offers his neck to Eli before tumbling to his death.

Some ambiguity, then, supposedly surrounds the film’s conclusion. Has Oskar, in “going steady” with Eli, merely set himself up to become another Håkan, doomed to grow old and useless in the service of a person who has “been twelve for a very long time”? Has he consigned himself to a sexless life with an animal who not only cannot love him back, but has no interest in love as such? Such questions see the title as ironic rather than earnest, and necessarily make a villain of Eli while fretting over Oskar’s safety and future growth. And, to my mind, those inclined to see such questions as paramount have entirely misunderstood the film. Perhaps it is because Eli seems so feminized, or at least neutered, that the victim-blaming comes so easily. But Let the Right One In is a profound interrogation of how to “go steady,” to form stable relationships, in the aftermath of considerable trauma. And not Oskar’s trauma – Eli’s. I’ve already mentioned his castration, his exploitation at the hands of multiple pedophiles, his being unable to mature past the age of twelve… even for a vampire, that’s being dealt a considerably difficult hand. I believe that the title’s fraught imperative is therefore not chiefly intended for Oskar, but for Eli: how can someone living such a damaged life understand how to both live with their traumatic past and feel hopeful enough to – a suggestive turn of phrase in English – make a friend?

How does one make a friend? The answer to this question has always proven somewhat elusive to me, involving some combination of happenstance, tolerance, and mutually shared interest and delight that just as often leads one down the garden path (it seemed like we should have been friends!) as it culminates in rewarding surprise (who’d have thought we would be friends?). When actively sought, in my experience, new friends seldom materialize: at best they’re the product of the desperate compulsion to socialize, at worst a new set of demands that draw you away from the friends who really do matter to you. Friendship, even more than romantic love, rises imperceptibly and thickens like a morning fog, suffuses your entire emotional landscape for a while until the inevitable sunshine dispels it with the dewdrops. Friendships at their most robust feel uniquely vulnerable and frail, liable to the forces that erode all relationships: the ravages of time, distance, and change. But if you’re a vampire, the answer has always been both deceptively simple and impossibly complicated: you bite someone. You make someone. Even Morrissey knew it, given the song from which the film takes its title:

And when at last it does
I’d say you were within your rights to bite
The right one and say, “what kept you so long?”
“What kept you so long?”

The decision to bite, though, is very ethically fraught in Let the Right One In. Being a vampire, at least from Eli’s perspective, sucks – the film commits to upending, or at least exposing the downside, of virtually every theoretically alluring element of vampire lore. Eternal youth sounds like a very different proposition when you’ve already gone through puberty. Stuck as a twelve-year-old, Eli has apparently found it convenient to keep around an older, stronger man to kill people on his behalf. But even more importantly, Eli likely must coerce some adult into helping him, simply for the sake of accomplishing quotidian things more easily. Entrusting yourself to a pedophile adult makes it easier to sign a lease for an apartment, travel in a car, and generally exist in a modern world that curtails the extent to which children can serve as their own agents. The relationship the two of them have, one in which Håkan can reasonably plead that Eli “not go out with that boy,” obligates Eli to perform precisely the kind of role he forecloses with Oskar, one in which the jealous presumption of intimacy concentrates power along sexual lines that Eli still finds mysterious and unnerving (small wonder, given the sexualized nature of his trauma). Eli’s dependence on Håkan thus perversely critiques a social order in which the only way a child can secure his needs are met is apparently by catering to the tastes of those grown-up outcasts who do look out for children – albeit in the wrong sort of way.

It seems noteworthy, too, that Håkan maintains this relationship to Eli as a human, rather than as a vampire. While there are many examples throughout literature and film of mortal familiars – Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is perhaps the most iconic – the tacit understanding in most cases is that their loyalty will eventually be rewarded by being made into a vampire, moving from the position of servant to friend. No such arrangement seems to be on the table in Let the Right One In; indeed, Eli makes a point of killing or trying to kill the other Blackeburg residents whose necks he bites into himself. In the movie’s first scene of actual horror, Eli waits under an overpass and mewls pathetically at a passerby, Jocke (Mikael Rahm), in order to get him to pick him up, at which point he heaves himself around the man’s neck and clamps down. Draining him in a snowbank, and unaware that he is being watched by the local recluse Gösta (Karl Robert Lindgren), Eli concludes his feed by doing two things that reflect his ethical commitments. First, he takes Jocke’s head in his hands and snaps his neck, sending a shiver through his whole body. And second, he leans over the body and heaves a heavy sigh, suppressing a sob before skittering into the night. Eli’s kill involves no hypnotism, no seduction, no personalization of any kind; it is a serial kill, a stranger killed for convenience’s sake, through a rehearsal of pathetic abjection. And, apparently, it is absolutely without pleasure, an act of shameful need. As Eli later says to Oskar, “I kill because I have to,” purely as a matter of sating an appetite.

The film’s major subplot involves a woman, Virginia (Ika Nord), whom Eli bites in a moment of desperation but is shooed away from before making the kill. Tended to by her husband, Lacke (Peter Carlberg), Virginia begins to realize what has happened to her during her stay in hospital. She feels the burning intensity of sunlight, an intense and unquenchable thirst. She is attacked by a full clowder of cats in Gösta’s apartment, sending her tumbling down the stairs and landing her back into the hospital. Her existence is a misery with which she chooses not to cope, instructing her husband to get the doctor and open the window shade. Lacke, distraught but compassionate, tells the doctor to go into the room and let in the light, watching his wife bursts into flames as he vows to track down the child who did this to her. What Lacke cannot know is that Eli’s shame about his own vampiric condition directly led to Virginia’s transformation. Having accompanied Oskar to the pool one day, he follows his friend down into the basement where he watches, horrified, as Oskar slashes his palm with a knife. “Let’s mix,” Oskar offers. he finds himself unable to resist the pool of blood forming at Oskar’s feet. Skittering impossibly quickly across the floor, Eli begins lapping up the blood, gazing upward at Oskar with an almost unrecognizably altered face, cheekbones pointed, jaw lengthened, pupils reduced to pinpricks: for a moment, Eli becomes an animal, bellowing “Go!” in a distorted voice. Disgusted with himself, he flees into the gloaming, watching a woman stumble home from the bar…

Though the film never says so explicitly, Oskar has inadvertently stumbled into the nightmare that Eli cannot bring himself to impose on his new friend: the threat of becoming a creature like himself, of blending their blood and passing on the infection that fills Eli with so much despair. That Oskar could offer him his bloody hand indicates just how little he understands his friend’s actual condition, exposing his secret shame and risking alienation in one horrifying tableau. That alien quality has haunted Eli’s relationship with Oskar since the moment they first met. The first thing Oskar notices about him, when they meet on the frozen jungle gym in the courtyard within their apartment complex, is that he smells awful. As his stomach grumbles – loudly – he offers no justification for the odor. Fortunately, Oskar moves on, noticing Eli’s pale bare feet lightly covered in fresh snow. The nails are vaguely grubby, the skin itself quite rough, and unsurprisingly so, given that Eli never wears so much as a sock over the course of the entire film. “Aren’t you cold?” Oskar asks. “No – I think I’ve forgotten how.” Another enigmatic observation with no real explanatory value, just more alienation. Huddled in hand-me-down clothes, hair slick with sweat and hanging in desultory mats over his forehead, eyes preternaturally wide and the color of dishwater, Eli’s porcelain pallor merely confirms he is death warmed over.

The next time Eli meets Oskar outside, he has taken steps to correct his deficiencies. “Do I smell better?” he asks bluntly, while Oskar puzzles over a Rubik’s cube. His appearance is generally less bedraggled, his hair a healthy sheeny black, his skin somehow less desperately pale. We have already seen Oskar with his ear against the bedroom wall, straining to make sense of the indistinct yelling of the man next door at his prospective friend and assuming, without saying so, that he comes from a similarly broken home. Little does he know that Eli’s newly ameliorated mien comes from having drunk Jocke’s blood – instead, Eli enchants him by solving his puzzle in a single night, leaving it as a small snow-covered mound on the jungle gym and causing Oskar to burst into a genuine grin, the first delicious taste of happiness in the entire film. When they next go out together, to a carnival in the evening, Eli thinks he has finally managed to pass himself off, only to be confronted with another challenge: Oskar offers him a piece of candy. “No…” he initially refuses, before relenting. Cut to Eli, vomiting on a nearby building, and Oskar wondering how such a small thing could produce such an intense reaction, wondering if there isn’t something truly strange about this person, wondering, wondering, wondering…

Though Let the Right One In stops short of the addiction parallels pushed to their logical conclusion in Jim Jarmusch’s more recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2018), Eli’s need for blood is not something he wants to inflict on other people. There are few advantages that he can readily see to living the kind of life he must, and has, apparently, for centuries. The greatest inconvenience is put on full display when Oskar cheekily refuses to admit Eli through his front door, daring him to cross the threshold without a proper invitation. For a moment, everything seems fine, Eli meeting his gaze as levelly and impassively as possible. Then blood begins to well in his eyes. Great scarlet stains appear on his shirt, his blood pooling out of his body through the pores of his skin. “Stop! Stop!” Oskar cries, before offering the invitation, hugging his friend closely. In allowing Oskar to see him at his most vulnerable, Eli inverts the vulnerability he witnesses when first seeing Oskar: indeed, Oskar only seems interested in Eli, initially, because he has caught him in a compromising situation, stabbing a tree with his Bowie knife and practicing the threats he hopes he might someday lob at his bullies. The careful camerawork pans left, past the empty jungle gym, to follow his approach to the tree – “Squeal, pig!” – until he senses he is being watched, panning right to show Eli in his pajamas, standing erect atop the structure, not a footprint in sight.

As Eli becomes Oskar’s main confidant, the only person with whom he can share the abuses he suffers at the hands of his bullies, Eli winds up feeling strangely empowered. Whereas he is predisposed to view his killing skills as a shameful extension of his own degraded humanity, he nevertheless encourages Oskar to meet violence with violence, to exact revenge in the most direct way possible and thus dissuade his tormentors from continuing to hurt and embarrass him. In the long run, the strategy proves dangerous: while Oskar manages to split his chief bully’s ear open on a class field trip over the frozen lake, the bully’s sadistic older brother gets involved and escalates the abuse that poor Oskar suffers. At the film’s memorable climax, Oskar’s three bullies and the older brother start a fire that clears everyone out of the swimming pool while Oskar remains their victim, instructed to hold his breath underwater for three minutes or have his eye gouged out with a knife. But in the moment, Eli finds that Oskar’s situation affords him an opportunity to communicate his own trauma. “Be me, for a while,” he asks of Oskar, holding his head in his hands. As Johan Soderqvist’s lilting piano tinkles in the background, Oskar opens his eyes to find himself seeing a version of Eli that isn’t Eli: encountering eyes that are older, more weary, more worn (indeed, a different actress altogether, Susanne Ruben, pictured above). In the novel, this scene is a sort of mind-meld, where Eli finally downloads his entire story into Oskar’s consciousness. But under Alfredson’s direction, the scene is less explicit, evocative of the desperate need for empathy that undergirds all of Eli’s pain. In Oskar, Eli has found someone uniquely positioned to understand the necessity of what he does, someone who can differentiate a killing from a murder.

When Lacke invades Eli’s apartment and threatens to let the sunshine in as he sleeps in the bathtub, Oskar feels no real guilt about shouting until his friend awakens. Eli’s death would have been a murder, a premeditated act that accomplishes nothing, brings no one back, keeps no one alive. It only takes. Killing Lacke, as Eli does, is a matter of survival. And killing Oskar’s bullies, which he does in spectacular fashion as the camera drowns along with Oskar, is also a matter of survival. Oskar keeps his eyes shut tight as a pair of legs are dragged across the surface of the water, as a severed head drops behind him, as the chlorinated blue discolors with blood, as the hand holding his head down goes limp from its own dismemberment. Surfacing, he blinks and stares into Eli’s eyes.

Throughout the movie, Eli’s appearance is never quite stable. His eyes are artificially enlarged with post-production CGI. He is played by one actress but dubbed by another (Elif Ceylan), whose voice sounds deliberately deeper despite being more or less the same age. Subtle prosthesis, changes in makeup, and sheer acting ability occasionally sharpen his facial features into angular distortions that emphasize his inhumanity. Somewhere, though we never see where, he has wings. But Oskar sees through these surfaces to the beating human heart, and Eli sees him seeing. Before the trauma, before the transformation, before the blood – Eli was a little boy, just like him. And in making himself vulnerable to Oskar, in asking Oskar to assume the burden of his existence in exchange for his own devotion, Eli has begun to make a friend. As Oskar surely knows by now, and as Eli – I can only hope – has begun to feel, this situation is not just another Håkan. This time, Eli is within his rights to bite, to let the right one in.

In a follow-up story published a few years later, “Let the Old Dreams Die,” Alqvist offers an ostensible sequel to the story of Eli and Oskar that intentionally only lets us glimpse them, briefly, in a single instant. Two decades later, there they are, frozen in a photograph on a beach in Barcelona, dancing at the water’s edge, two boys forever. For some, the shame of one’s being can never completely be eliminated. But Let the Right One In suggests that an ethical bite, a consensual bite, offered as an invitation to a world of mutual understanding and intelligibility – even if a world apart – is the path to the closest and truest sort of bond: a shared, steady humanity.

Next week, a new film! Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. And, I hope, a special announcement about May. Thanks for your patience with this one, dear readers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s