The beginning of this film is black, all black apart from small, almost illegible white writing on the left side of the screen. Slowly we move into our first shot, falling snow against blackest night. A skinny young boy of twelve stares out from a bedroom that is very much a prison and sanctuary, and a uniformly inimical and cold world stares back. The only words he utters as we watch the details of a winter’s night comprise a vicious taunt about a pig. He is both swine and butcher, and like the miniature narrator of this novel, his name is Oskar.
In this language, say a few prominent internet sources, Oskar means “God’s spear”; and God needs a spear for only one thing. Oskar makes his home with his mom and spends a weekend here and there with his father in another part of Sweden. His school, which we visit almost immediately, seems even less pleasant as he is bullied constantly by a boy called Conni and his myrmidons. His tormentor is his size and age but already imbued with all the contemptuous qualities of someone devoted to promoting evil. Later in the film we come to understand the familial influence that may have embedded its hooves into his back, but until that point he represents what all children must confront: the savagery and immorality of bullies. What are bullies? Bullies are monsters, undead monsters. They are the closest thing we have to demons, because they exist primarily to prey on the weak, to hurt, to humiliate, to drain others of vitality, hope, and self-esteem. Even at the onset we know that Oskar, a frail, horribly blond youth who cannot possibly stand up for himself, has always been bullied; his posture and defeatist manners betray his past. His initial comments of "scream like a pig" are echoed immediately thereafter when he is pushed around at school, called a pig, and an oinking sound is made. We then realize that he is reliving his tortures, fighting his tormentors at the only time he can, that is to say, when they're no longer there.
Elsewhere in this hell, we see a hazy pair of strangers on a snowy, isolated field of a park (we are surrounded by snowy, isolated fields), a young man and an older man. The older man seems helpless and tired and asks for the time, and the next thing we know the young man has been slain in a most revolting manner. The distance of the camera is extremely important because, for so many minutes of the film, it will focus closely on Oskar and on the strange young girl who happens to move into his complex one day. It will examine them as if they were immortals, flawlessly young and destined never to evince a single wrinkle. But for the hideous crimes that have been plaguing Sweden the last few weeks, the camera has decided, like the average citizen, to cower in the shadows and only glean the broadest strokes of a malefic scene. Is it a coincidence that after this terrible murder we see Oskar with a knife? Like so many youths who cannot fight back, Oskar is consumed by retribution, by divine justice, and he imagines his classmates who have made him into a bad habit as he stabs a tree as if it were their belly. It is at this point, when his soul has made a tacit pact with evil, that a young girl appears, his age but much more mature. We don't get a clear look at her initially; she materializes on high and leaps down to the ground off a dumpster like a sprite. They bond in the way lonely children always bond, through mutual pity and small acts of kindness. Her name is Eli, and she lives with an older man who may or may not be her father, but turns out to be the murderer we saw minutes before. Then, about twenty-five minutes into the film, we see what we are dealing with – and we're not the only ones who get to see it. A reclusive cat owner casually gazing out his window (in Blackeberg, there is little to do except gaze casually out your window) knows what he saw but doesn't believe it. He stutters his way into a local pub get-together where everyone knows his name, and after a brief period of shock and disbelief all of them set off together to find blood.
The secret to Let the Right One In – if one may really call it that considering its global renown – has to do with what it does not make explicit. What Eli exactly is has been the discussion of horror fans since the publication of the original novel in 2004; why she has become a creature so separated from the normal needs and desires of humanity is not revealed. A legitimate contribution to an age-old myth, however, should involve a twist, and the twist here is the ambivalence of the storyteller towards anything except the truth of children, a truth which can be cruel, ruthless, and vengeful as much as it can be curious, forgiving, and warm. I have always believed that there is nothing more loving nor more demonic than a child because, in either case, he doesn't know better. He loves passionately, unconditionally, against all odds, and against all time and space; and he hates with such irreverence to human existence that the most unabashed devilry floats through his head. When the bullies' lashes scar his cheek and draw blood, the way Oskar looks back at them, the redness of his lips, and the calmness of his entire frame all argue a transformation that has already begun. No longer is he the victim but an avenging angel biding his time.
We also see what happens when a woman who survived the murderer's attack decides to enter a room full of cats, what Oskar hopes will happen to his nemesis, whose wickedness runs in the family, and perhaps even why Oskar's father – who also seems to have been tormented as a child, or at least has a vivid imagination – has no interest in his mother and only marginally more in him. Some of these observations are augmented by the type of gore so commonly incident to movies of these genres; other points are so subtle as to elude the first-time viewer. And while I do have to protest the involvement of children in this sort of film, however artistically the details are presented and however accurately the qualms and anxieties of almost-teenagers are depicted, this is a fairy tale undiminished by the nature of the violence. More than anything else, Eli (who importantly states that she is "not a girl," then later flashes a horrific and suggestive scar) operates as Oskar's conscience, which like the conscience of so many children has swung into a realm of isolation, self-justification, and revenge. In time Eli becomes the proverbial devil sitting on Oskar's shoulder and encouraging him to fight back with force. And is revenge the right choice to make? Can a child educate us about distinguishing right from wrong? That is the question that is never answered as Oskar stands up to his captors, and I, for one, will always root for the destruction of bullies and tyrants. Even at the hands of other monsters.