I have been struck by how characters of Oskar and Eli changed, or more specifically didn’t change over the course of the film.
At the beginning we see each of them expressing a desire to change their life. Oskar wants to free himself from bullying by murdering his tormentors. He rehearses his knife attack on shadow victims and trees. Despite this fervent desire for most of the movie he is unable to muster the courage to resist the bullies. When the bullies whip him with a switch, we had just seen him walk past the window where the teacher sits inside. All he has to do is shout for help or even just cry out in pain and the teacher will hear him.
Then along comes Eli who encourages Oskar to resist, to defend himself. When we next see Oskar being confronted by the bullies, the planets have aligned in his favor. He has in his hands a weapon – the pole – and the bullies are threatening him with what amounts to a death by hypothermia. In this scene the pole is a surrogate for the knife, since it actually was the tool of a murderer. (In case you missed it, it was the same pole that Håkan used to push Jocke’s body under the ice). Also the bullies are hesitant to act as a pack against Oskar when the adults might see it. So Oskar is armed, presented with a mortal threat, and is faced with a single attacker. Whack! Conny gets it upside da head. As Eli later comments, “Hooray!” Oskar has now had his redemption. Oskar has now come of age.
However the film doesn’t give us such a trite answer. Later we see Lacke standing over a sleeping Eli with a knife to her throat. Oskar is holding an unsheathed knife and Lacke’s back is to him. Indeed, Lacke doesn’t even know that Oskar is there. Possibly Oskar did not see that Lacke held a knife, but he is still unable to bring himself do anything about it. He can only call out when Lacke starts to uncover the window, and when Lacke turns and tosses down his knife, Oskar can only start to back up. Once Eli awakens and is taking care of her own defense, Oskar averts his gaze and pointedly throws down the knife. His redemption has been an illusion. He has not come of age. Afterward he loses interest in his scrapbook of murders. By the time he gets to the pool scene he is not only passive towards the bullies, he is now compliant. He is still the same Oskar that we met at the beginning of the film, only now he has lost his fantasy of murderous redemption.
As we meet Eli in the beginning of the film, we find that she has an adult helper who goes out to kill for her. However he bungles the first task we see him attempt, so that Eli has to go out and hunt for herself. She preys upon Jocke and then sobs after she kills him. Apparently she has wanted to distance herself from the killing that makes her survival possible. As Oskar has wanted to release himself from his miserable life by becoming a killer, so Eli has wanted to release herself from her miserable life by forsaking killing.
However the film shows us that she cannot escape who she is. The next time we see her prey upon someone it is her helper, Håkan. He has failed her for the last time. She goes out of her way to find him at the hospital, and the unavoidable conclusion is that she went there specifically to end his life. When she kills Håkan, perhaps out of mercy, perhaps to protect herself from discovery, she does not seem to display any emotion at all. She recognizes the necessity of the killing, whatever her feelings in the matter.
And the time after that when we see her prey upon someone – Virginia – she seems unable to stop herself after to Oskar unknowingly triggers her blood lust. When Lacke kicks her off of Virginia’s back, instead of sobbing Eli seems dazed and unaware of exactly what has happened. Eli has not managed at all to distance herself from killing. Killing is both a necessity of her life and a necessity of her nature. When she is finally threatened by Lacke, she must not only kill but kill in front of Oskar. Now they both know that they have failed in the change they sought, the change that was each’s hope for an improved existence.
Now we get to the pool scene, where each seems to revel in their unchanged state. Oskar is more the target of bullies than ever. Eli has no Renfield to use to distance herself from her prey. In fact here at the poolside Eli is more of a killer than ever, even a wanton killer. She kills not because it is necessary to her survival. Arguably she doesn’t even need to kill any of the bullies in order to secure Oskar’s survival. She does not even feed on any of her victims. Instead she kills all three of the participating bullies, even going so far as to dismember one. So despite the desire for change that we saw in each character at the beginning of the film, here at the end we see that neither has changed. However, unlike at the beginning of the film neither is miserable. They are happy at the end of the film, and somehow Alfredson has seen to it that we the audience are happy as well.
Is this then the message (or at least a message) of the film? Their misery stems not from their circumstances but from their isolation, their loneliness? Now that they each have a companion, whatever that companion’s misery, happiness for each is still possible?