Hard Candy (United States, 2006)
Hard Candy is the kind of uncompromising independent motion picture that is likely to foster ambivalence in a significant portion of its audience. Admittedly, the film doesn't stand up well to a careful postmortem (many psychological thrillers don't), but it remains powerful and disturbing during the viewing experience, with flaws only surfacing after the credits have rolled. This movie will be most appreciated by those who don't demand viewer identification with an on-screen individual, because neither of Hard Candy's characters is the sort of person a healthy movie-goer would sympathize with.
Meeting someone on-line can be fraught with peril. While a majority of those who "date" in chat rooms are pretty much who and what they claim to be, there are exceptions. As anyone who pays attention to the news knows, cyberspace if full of predators. When Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) agrees to meet her Internet buddy, Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), at a diner, she acknowledges it to be a big step. She's a 14-year old student. He's a 32-year old photographer. And both of them are aware that he's interested in more than taking her picture.
Their first face-to-face encounter is awkward. Jeff comes across as a little shy and bumbling. Hayley, although seemingly naive, is forthright. The suggestion to go to Jeff's home is hers, and once they're there, she takes charge - in more ways than one. We soon learn a few things. Jeff is a pedophile, although how aggressive he is remains an open question. And Hayley, recognizing his tendencies from their on-line chatting, has decided to turn the tables on him. She drugs him, ties him up, then explains to him what she's going to do to him so he never stalks another girl again. Oh, and by the way, was he involved in the disappearance of a girl whose photograph is a part of his collection?
Most of Hard Candy is talking, as the two characters attempt to peel away each other's disguises and get to the underlying truths. By the end of the film, we don't know a lot more about them than we do at the beginning. Hayley's real motives remain a mystery. Jeff's guilt or innocence in the most heinous of the crimes is undetermined. Director David Slade makes the movie more about the present confrontation than about the events in the past which may have precipitated it.
Slade doesn't sympathize with the pedophile. Jeff is shown to be devious, manipulative, and pathetic. But Hayley isn't the kind of individual a viewer can bond with. Despite being incredibly intelligent, she has the earmarks of a sociopath. Her attitude towards tormenting Jeff borders on sadistic glee. There are times when she's more frightening that Jeff. And what man won't wince during a particular scene that, while not graphic, nonetheless strikes home?
Hard Candy weakens during its second half. The first hour is as intense and compelling as any recent cinematic experience. There's the uneasy meeting, the turning of the tables, and a gripping psychological cat-and-mouse game between the two as they stake out their territory. Jeff may be the adult, but it quickly becomes apparent that Hayley is the master manipulator. Yet, because she is physically less imposing than he is, there is a real danger that if he escapes his bonds, he can overpower her. Once the film passes its midpoint, it loses a little steam but by no means unravels. The scenario becomes less plausible and Sandra Oh is given a bizarre cameo as a next-door neighbor delivering her daughter's Girl Scout cookies. It's nice that Oh agreed to be in the movie, but one wonders if the role could have been less contrived.
Actress Ellen Page deserves the accolades she has been receiving. Her interpretation of Hayley is frightening. As written, the character is a writer's construct, but Page makes her real. Patrick Wilson (the wimpy Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera) is solid, but not in her league. She dominates their scenes, which upsets the balance of the cat-and-mouse game a little. We are always of the opinion that Hayley has the upper hand, even when she isn't supposed to.
For music video director Slade embarking upon his first feature, this is edgy territory. The material is compelling - it has the power to simultaneously engross and repel. The film's cruelty will turn off some viewers, but that's the quality that will impassion Hard Candy's defenders. There's a lot more going on here than just a revenge fantasy. These are two fascinating characters, and watching them thrust and parry proves to be as impossible to turn away from as observing a grotesque roadside accident.
Hard Candy (United States, 2006)
Cast: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson
Screenplay: Brian Nelson
Cinematography: Jo Willems
Music: Harry Escott, Molly Nyman
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate