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MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Kids have a natural curiosity for how the world works. Give them time and they will learn.

Boy Meets Girl

The scrawny swede learns how the world works
The scrawny swede learns how the world works

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a 12-year-old Swede. The striking blond hair might make him appealing in the U.S., but he’s also scrawny and poor, and the other kids at his school bully him. He prefers solitude, whether working on his Rubik’s cube or sitting on the playground equipment in the courtyard in the cold, long, dark evening.

Oskar is just a little too interested in knives for his own good, but he is a good boy; he doesn’t go around killing cats or anything. He’s actually afraid of violence, although he is fascinated by death.

He’s noticed a new girl in his apartment complex. She’s a little strange too, and she might be poor because she doesn’t wear shoes in the snow. And she doesn’t treat Oskar like a freak, so maybe she could be a friend.

Let the Right One In follows some other characters too, without telling us who is important to the story or why. For instance, there’s the normal-seeming old guy who murders people in the park.

Learning By Watching

The storytelling in Let the Right One In is very satisfying because it makes you feel smart. It never tells you anything directly. It shows you characters and their behavior, but it leaves it to you to piece together what it all means. That’s not to say that it’s vague, rather, you get to participate; you two and two together to come up with four.

For example (and without revealing too much), there isn’t a specific moment when the entire audience will collectively connect the murderous old man with the story of the kids. But ask anyone who has seen the movie and they will be able to tell you how the old man fits in. We all figure it out at different moments, but when we do, it’s an “aha” moment.

Learning by watching fits nicely with the age of our protagonist Oskar. He’s figuring out how the world works. He probably knows that Santa Claus isn’t real, but he’s probably not sure about vampires. If they’re not real, why are there rules, like garlic bulbs or having to be invited into a room? At that age, you don’t know what’s urban legends, science, or folklore, but you’re willing to learn the how of something, regardless of whether you know if it’s real or make-believe.

Shots in the Dark

If a great story were all Let the Right One In had to offer, it would earn a mild recommendation. But there are a half-dozen shots that leap off the screen as gorgeous, surprising, or perfectly staged. There is a scene in a swimming pool, there is motion in the shadows, and there is a sudden conflagration. These shots are usually kept tantalizingly short, which makes them all the more effective. If you blink, you might miss something awesome.

One quick shot that generated conversation among my friends was one of some computer-generated nudity. The shot was too short for me to understand what I was supposed to get from it (maybe I blinked), but I read it as another example of Oskar’s curiosity. He’s also at that age where he’s curious about the difference between boys and girls, and the shot reminded me that he’s just a kid — he shouldn’t be peeking but he’s also probably unable to help himself. Yet others thought the shot conveyed information from the filmmaker to the audience about the nude character. If I go back and look, I’ll be as naughty as Oskar, and I won’t have his age and normal curiosity to excuse me.

The movie ends with yet another tantalizingly unexplained image. Oskar has left his old life behind, but where is he going? Earlier in the film there is a hint at the logical answer, but it also makes for a good final scene to end on him simply moving. Filmmaker Tomas Alfredson yet again proves his good instincts in assuming that the audience is smart and attentive enough to be able to keep up.