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Old soul, new face: 'Let Me In'

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
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'Let Me In' creeps onto the red carpet
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Let Me In" is American remake of critically acclaimed Swedish hit "Let the Right One In"
  • Director Matt Reeves recreates the same mournful, melancholic mood as the original
  • "Let Me In" is at times both a horror movie and a love story
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(CNN) -- "We can't be friends." That's what Abby tells Owen the first time they meet. She's perched on a climbing frame in a snow-covered playground in Los Alamos, New Mexico, outside the cheap apartment block where Owen lives with his mom. He mutters something about not wanting to be friends, but it's obvious he could use one, even a strange, stinky pre-pubescent girl who walks around barefoot in the snow at dusk.

In "Let Me In," the American remake of the critically acclaimed Swedish hit "Let the Right One In," Abby looks pretty good to 12-year-old Owen. And we can see why. He's bullied at school and neglected at home. His mom is hardly there (director Matt Reeves doesn't even honor her with a close-up), and his dad has moved on. In one of Reeves' rare embellishments to John Ajvide Lindqvist's screenplay, Owen calls him once, and asks if he believes in the existence of evil.

It's a fundamental question, and in Abby's company an urgent one, but the voice on the other end of the line misconstrues it completely, and wonders instead if Owen's mother is filling his head with mumbo-jumbo.

That word, evil, is also on the lips of another pointed Reeves' addition: President Ronald Reagan, whose famous 1983 "Empire of evil" speech figures prominently on TV screens in the first scene: "There is sin and evil in the world and we're enjoined by scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might." It makes you wonder what Reeves means by transferring this story not just to the United States, but to Los Alamos, of all places.

Is Abby evil? It's hard to see how she cannot be, once we understand the nature of the relationship she has with her old man (Richard Jenkins), who is immediately revealed to be a serial killer and who comes to a very sticky end before we're even settled in our seats.

Yet Abby's friendship is soon the most precious thing in Owen's life. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays him, was Viggo Mortensen's trusting, troubled boy in "The Road." His face is simultaneously open and anxious, as feminine in his fine eyebrows and cheekbones as Chloe Moretz ("Kick-Ass"), who plays Abby. She has a fresh face, but an old soul. They could pass for siblings. In each other they recognize something fragile -- call it loneliness -- and potentially very strong. Whether that's rage or love or just survival instinct, the movie leaves it tantalizingly ambiguous.

Evidently impressed with the work of Tomas Alfredson on the Swedish film, Reeves recreates the same mournful, melancholic mood, settling for still, often shallow widescreen compositions that are right at the opposite end of the spectrum from the handicam jitters of his previous monster movie, "Cloverfield" (though that, too, was a more artfully framed movie than some gave it credit for). Some sequences are shot-for-shot, though he dispenses with Alfredson's most jarring and provocative insert. The new movie's most startling set piece is all Reeves: a panicky car chase filmed entirely from a fixed position in the back of a stolen vehicle.

Sensitive and schlocky in rightful measure (it's pretty gruesome in places), "Let Me In" is one of those exceptional remakes that matches the caliber of the original. It's a horror movie that's also a love story, the two so deeply entwined it's impossible to say where the love ends and the horror begins.