Matt Reeves' Cloverfield was a film caught between two conflicting realities, though not the two you'd think. The monster movie was shot entirely from the point of view of a young man who was filming friends at a party when New York fell prey to the attacks of a giant and mostly unseen creature. The most common complaint about the conceit was what some viewed as its implausibility, namely, that someone would keep filming their surroundings instead of devoting every ounce of energy and planning to surviving the attack. But Reeves understood that the unthinking voyeurism of post-millenial twentysomethings would most naturally manifest itself in someone who would never consider not filming the night the world ended. As a result, the moments in which the characters unraveled under pressure while their freak-outs were digitally preserved were the most genuine parts of the entire film. He made the first monster movie for the Facebook generation.
It wasn't the POV sensibility that undercut Reeves' first film, but his inability to let well enough alone. Moments of mostly relatable human drama were juxtaposed with not-quite-polished CGI and lapses into badly manufactured grandiosity that changed the movie from one about people trying to survive something terrible to one that tried to make the attack the main character. He's got an eye for action and suspense, but his hand's still too stiff on the wheel. His final products feel overly composed and occasionally inorganic, which is the case with Let Me In. Adapted from the Swedish film Let the Right One In (which was in turn drawn from a novel), Let Me In has moments of genuine terror and complicated human drama, as well as some fantastically rendered scenes of nightmarish suspense and even dark comedy. But Reeves just barely lands on the wrong side of the line when it comes to letting his film breathe on its own. He doesn't want you to experience the film; he wants to control every aspect of that experience. There are kinetic and engaging moments scattered throughout, but too often the film is stifled by its creator's insecurity.
From the start, there's just a hint of too much ornamentation: ominous title cards reveal that the film takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1983, yet the specific place and year never come into play. Los Alamos was probably picked because it sounds vaguely intimidating, able to tickle viewers' fuzzy recollections of the Manhattan Project and hopefully set the location up as one with a murky past. Even the year itself is used mainly to justify some appropriately creepy footage of Ronald Reagan talking about the "evil empire" and the necessity of standing up to whatever demons may rise to confront us as a nation. Yet the televised speech, cars, costumes, and general aesthetic are more than enough to set the era and mood, and there's no importance at all to the story taking place where it does. It could be any town, or no town. But Reeves insists on setting the scene for a steak dinner with a child's paper placemat. It's as if he lacks confidence to let the story do the talking.
That's unfortunate, because when he remembers to let go a little, Reeves does good work. The film revolves around Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a thin and unpopular 12-year-old who spends his days trying to fly below the radar of a gang of thugs led by Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his nights aimlessly wandering the courtyard of the apartment complex where he lives with his mother. Owen's a bit of a voyeur, as well, but not in a sexually deviant way: his dead-eyed observations are those of a true outsider, a boy who stares openly at others because he assumes his insignificance translates into invisibility. One night while monitoring, he sees a young girl (Chloe Moretz) and her father (Richard Jenkins) arrive in a U-Haul. This is Abby, whom Owen finds to be weird, aloof, and prone to walking barefoot through the snow. If this were a romantic comedy, she'd be quirky. But this is a horror movie, which means she's a vampire.
The great thing about horror film is the way it turns metaphorical worries into real if fantastical monsters; in this case, Owen's calf-love feelings for his new neighbor don't just carry the threat of rejection but are being given to an actual murderous beast. Yet it's a love story all the same, and Reeves (who also wrote the screenplay) gets the most traction in scenes that mix these elements. One night Abby comes to Owen's window after killing and feeding on a stranger and begs to be let in, as folklore dictates vampires must to enter someone's home. But she's not coming to hunt, she's coming for respite, and the emotional torment on her face and the painfully real talk they have about their feelings for each other feels like poetry. Every now and then, Reeves embraces the film's necessary complexity and creates moments that aren't afraid to mix fear with love or longing with repulsion.
Too often, though, he clogs the scenes with overwrought music and bad special effects. The score from Michael Giacchino is one of the composer's worst, a series of notes without melody that are meant to convey some kind of dread but instead choke the life out of every spare moment. Aldous Huxley said, "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." Reeves seems to have taken this not as wisdom but as a challenge, and many of the film's potentially most powerful moments, from the tender to the horrific, are undone by a grating soundtrack that feels designed to shove the viewer into having one of a very narrow set of emotional responses instead of reacting naturally to the light and image playing before them. Similarly, moments in which Abby sheds the cloak of her false childhood and attacks someone are intended to be startling, but low-end CGI and generally poor planning give her the mannerisms of a badly drawn spider, all weird angles and occasional head tics from a cartoon body that doesn't even project weight or heft. Vampires can be petrifying; outtakes from The Matrix Revolutions are not. She's scary until the moment she tries to be.
The plot, such as it is, deals with Owen and Abby's relationship as they each battle their own demons, from the bullies chasing Owen to the cop (Elias Koteas) investigating the strange deaths that lead him to Abby's door. The child actors are remarkably good, too. Public school can be just as hellish as the life of the undead, and Smit-McPhee deftly captures the range of a young boy whose days can encompass boring classes, painful run-ins with bullies, and fleeting glimpses of a girl he's beginning to love. Moretz is wonderful, as well: finally able to step away from the sheer idiocy of Kick-Ass, she proves she can carry scenes that would crush almost any other 13-year-old. Jenkins also gives a nicely subdued performance as a man driven by love to hunt down innocents for food so that his little girl might live. The scenes in which he stalks potential victims whose blood he can harvest are gut-wrenching, not least because he never stops wearing his regret on his battered face.
I should state clearly here: Reeves' film isn't totally bad. Rather, it's horribly regrettable for how much better it could have been. In its more lucid and uncompromising moments, it's clearly a work by a director who knows what he's doing. Reeves is adroit at building suspense, especially when he locks the camera into a certain character's point of view and holds tense moments a few beats longer than expected, and he's able to stage some solid action scenes. (There's one prolonged bit in which Jenkins' character hides in a stranger's car that's breathtaking.) Yet his better angels are too often shouted down by his worry that the final product won't be readily classifiable, dissectible, or empathetic. Perhaps the best representation of his willingness to sacrifice something good on the altar of being easy is the change in title from the original's Let the Right One In to the far less nuanced Let Me In. Instead of reflecting the nature of choice and the fact that monsters are not often easily identifiable, the blunter title suggests a more direct plea from a creature bent only on destruction. Reeves is fighting his Cloverfield battle all over again. It's a valiant effort, if ultimately a futile one.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He's also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.