Hard Candy drew some blood at Sundance where some people had violently negative reactions to it. But others loved it. The story involves Jeff Kohlver (
Angels in America's Patrick Wilson), a fashion photographer, who connects online with a beguiling little Lolita named Hayley (Ellen Page). After an online chat, she agrees to meet him at a local coffee shop. Hayley comes across as a smart, adorable fourteen-year-old who should know better than to meet up with a strange man she knows only from the Internet. She ends up going home with him to listen to a bootleg recording of her favorite band. When Jeff offers her a drink, she jokes that girls her age are told never to take a drink they haven't poured themselves. Then she runs to the kitchen to make her own drink and one for Jeff. Of course Jeff should have heeded her comment because it turns out that Haley spiked his drink and while he's out she manages to tie him up.
I don't want to reveal too much of what happens next but suffice it to say that Haley turns the tables on someone she has deemed a predatory male. In fact, she accuses him of trading in kiddie porn and being a pedophile who may have had a hand in the recent death of a young girl. So Haley, fueled by a youthful feminist rage, decides to exact some revenge and her methods may make some in the audience'especially the men for a change squirm.
Hard Candy is a vicious game between two predatory characters. Neither one is an innocent, and neither one elicits our sympathy as they circle each other in a game where the stakes grow increasingly high. Director David Slade gives the film a rather clinical look'crisp bright images, Jeff's home is modern with clean lines and no clutter. This approach keeps the audience from warming up to the characters or getting too involved in the emotional lives of the characters. Instead, we feel like we are watching a clinical experiment to see how far each subject will go and what it will take to break one of them. The dialogue is deliberately manipulative and deceptive. It's also sharp as the characters verbally spar with each other. But the script never reveals much about the characters. Both are hiding something, and we never get to the full truth about either. This means that they remain more like narrative devices than fully fleshed human beings.
But in the end, Slade and writer Brian Nelson may be less interested in a complex psychological thriller and more interested in creating a high concept horror film. And in that regard, Hard Candy delivers a nasty piece of work. The sweetly cherubic Haley proves quite dangerous, while Jeff's nice guy demeanor may simply be a fa?ade covering something much darker. Slade turns the screws effectively as he builds towards his deadly climax. His story often strains credibility'for instance how does the petite Haley manage to lift and move the unconscious Jeff onto chairs and tables but he keeps the film moving fast enough that the audience does most of its questioning after the film has ended.
Ellen Page (fifteen at the time of filming) delivers a performance of amazing confidence and poise. Appearing in a red hooded sweatshirt, she proves to be a wolf in Little Red Riding Hood's clothing. She is unflappable as she goes able her plans, and acts far more mature than her years. She never has a moment of doubt about what she's doing as if she's some pint-sized Terminator programmed for revenge. But a little more shading to her character could have made for a more interesting film. Wilson gives an ambiguous performance as Jeff. His character never seems to be open or willing to tell the whole truth. He only backtracks when confronted with facts he cannot toss aside. He's a slippery sort and his pleasant demeanor may not entirely be a fa?ade. He may not be as bad as Haley thinks, or he might be worse. We never know.
Hard Candy (rated R for disturbing violent and aberrant sexual content involving a teen, and for language.) is a well-executed work of manipulation that works best as a high-end horror film. Plus after seeing so many female characters stalked, tormented and abused by male characters, it's downright refreshing to see men squirm'and at the hand of a tiny girl no less. Hard Candy's Haley joins the women characters of Ms. 45 and Australia's Shame as a femme avenger with a score to settle with men who prey on women.
Companion viewing: Lolita, Ms. 45, Shame, Death and the Maiden -----