Director: David Slade
If appearances can be deceiving, then perhaps the most deceptive of all is an Internet chat room. That person you may be getting to know online, that one you think you may have so much in common with, could be someone with an entirely different personality and motive. Watch any random episode of Dateline NBC's "To Catch A Predator" gimmick, and you'll probably see at least a few middle-aged men who believed they'd sweet-talked their way into the pants of some nonexistent teenage girl they met over the Internet. This sort of situation is the basis for Hard Candy, an independent film that tells the tale of a real-life meeting between two online buddies that quickly becomes a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.
We begin our story by peeking in on an online conversation between "Lensman319" and "Thonggrrrl14," as the two agree to meet in person at a local coffee shop. And as they meet, we meet them as well: "Thonggrrrl14" is Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), a petite fourteen-year-old girl who is well-read despite barely looking a day over twelve; "Lensman319" is Jeff Kholver (Patrick Wilson), a charming 32-year-old photographer. The pair strike up a conversation over a slice of chocolate cake, a conversation that is both friendly yet awkward. Jeff seems shy and a little nervous, and Hayley comes across as na´ve yet mature for her age. As the conversation continues, the British techno band Goldfrapp comes up. Hayley is a fan, and when Jeff mentions that he's acquired a bootleg MP3 of a recent Goldfrapp concert he attended, she absolutely has to hear it. She more or less invites herself over to his house, even though they both agree that going back to his place is a little bit crazy.
They get back to his house, and as Hayley listens to the MP3, Jeff offers her a glass of water. She declines, stating that she's been taught to never drink any beverage she hasn't prepared herself. Hayley leads Jeff into the kitchen, where she raids the fridge and starts making screwdrivers. Times must be different nowadays, because when I was 14, the only screwdrivers I knew about were the kind they sell at hardware stores. Maybe I was too sheltered as a kid, I don't know. But anyway, Hayley starts pouring the vodka and orange juice, and things start livening up. She starts begging Jeff to take pictures of her, similar to the ones he's taken of various models that hang on the walls of his house. Hayley turns on some techno music and starts dancing on the couch, but when Jeff returns with his camera, he gets dizzy and passes out.
He awakens sometime later to find himself tied to an office chair. Hayley greets him, explaining that she spiked his drink with something she'd stolen from her father, and that she was afraid she'd accidentally used too much. At first thinking this is some kind of joke, Jeff soon learns that Hayley is not the innocent young girl he believed her to be, but a cold, calculating sociopath with an axe to grind. Her agenda: to pull every skeleton out of his closet by proving her belief that Jeff is a pedophile. And folks, Hayley isn't playing around. She's willing to go to extreme lengths to make sure Jeff suffers, as she pumps him for information regarding his indiscretions and the disappearance of a young woman he may have once photographed.
Although it never claims itself to be such, Hard Candy could perhaps be construed as a spiritual cousin to movies like Takashi Miike's Audition. Both movies center around men whose relationships with the younger women in their lives aren't everything they originally believed them to be. But what separates Audition and Hard Candy (besides the lack of gore, of which there is very little in Hard Candy) is how we connect to the characters. With Hard Candy, it's as if we were merely dropped into the middle of a certain slice of life with no preparation. As the movie progresses, we get glimpses into Jeff's true nature, but we never really feel like we can identify with him. We learn that he enjoys the company of underage girls, and that he may be connected to a missing teenager. It's hard to sympathize with him while knowing this information, but it's just as hard to sympathize with Hayley. I don't want to say she's one-dimensional, because I don't believe she is. There's a lot going on inside that mind of hers. But Hayley is absolutely devoid of a soul; she's a complete blank slate who completely negates anything we think we know about her with just a few lines of dialogue. And really, should we sympathize with her? Do we cheer for her because she is doling out comeuppance to someone we are led to believe is a pedophile, or do we fear her because of how she gleefully tortures him both physically and psychologically? She is not painted as an antihero like, say, a feminist version of The Punisher, but as an enigmatic sociopath that enjoys what she's doing. She says early in the movie that "four out of five doctors agree that I'm actually insane," and though she sounds like she's joking, it appears that nothing could be closer to the truth.
Hard Candy is a very minimalist film, with nearly all of the 104-minute running time centering around two characters in one location. Director David Slade takes that and uses it to raise the movie's intimacy. He relies heavily (perhaps too heavily) on close-ups of his actors, but it manages to work in the movie's favor because it pulls the viewer deeper into the atmosphere. Slade also puts his music video background to good use, as we get some quite effective fast-motion and slow-motion. Combined with the work of cinematographer Jo Willems, it almost feels as if MTV decided to branch out into art house films. Slade's work is also greatly enhanced by the engrossing score composed by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott. The score alternates between thumping techno, a subdued ambience, and occasions of no music at all. Sometimes silence is golden, and Nyman and Escott understand this. Many times, they just let the sound effects do their work, which is much more effective. I also thought the screenplay penned by Brian Nelson was extremely well done. The movie has no real hero, no real villain. Nelson's script is not painted with black and white, but shades of gray, which makes the movie all the more intriguing to watch. The script touches upon certain taboos that most movies won't, but instead of doing it like some cheap Lifetime movie, Nelson makes Hard Candy bounce between psychoanalytical drama and black comedy. And believe it or not, it all balances out properly and works quite well.
But perhaps the best things about the entire movie are its two leads, Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Outside of one or two scenes, they are the only characters in the movie, and both Wilson and Page are extraordinary. The movie is heavy on dialogue and the action scenes are rather light, but the duo effortlessly handles all that is required of them. Wilson is wonderful, managing to make the viewer both dislike him and feel sympathetic for him simultaneously. His co-star, however, is absolutely excellent. Some critics have heralded this as Page's breakout role, and I might have to agree. Page is absolutely riveting as she plays the role with a certain whimsical merriment. Her character is smooth and cunning, and Page makes it believable. The movie is all about Page and Wilson, which makes Sandra Oh's cameo as a nosy neighbor delivering Girl Scout cookies so superfluous. Yeah, she might have a little name value after scoring points with Sideways and the TV show Grey's Anatomy, she doesn't bring anything to the film at all. Nothing against her, but the inclusion of her character doesn't bring much to the movie outside of a distraction. While I think the character was included to add a little "is Hayley going to be caught?" tension, it ultimately went nowhere and served no greater purpose to the movie.
Viewers will be either engrossed with or turned off by Hard Candy. The subject matter a young girl torturing a suspected pedophile will not appeal to everyone, but it will nonetheless get a reaction from those who see it. It is a film made with passion and with talent, and it is a film that is thoroughly fascinating. The movie is worth the price of admission, just to see the performances of its two leads. And because of this, I cannot give Hard Candy anything less than four stars and a very hearty seal of approval. It will not satisfy everyone who sees it, but I believe it is worth watching at least once, just for the experience.
Final Rating: ****