I think Hard Candy is a film perhaps best seen cold – without any knowledge of the storyline whatsoever. If you don’t know anything about the film, stop reading after this paragraph – the rest of this positive review contains the sort of minor spoilers that tell you what a movie is about and that are normally not harmful, but in this case could rob you of some of the enjoyment of seeing this film for the first time. If you do know the basic concept of Hard Candy, feel free to read on, as I will attempt to not spoil anything beyond that.
The rape-revenge genre is one of my favorite grindhouse staples. Rape remains one of the most shocking and heinous acts you can show onscreen, even when murder and torture has long since lost their cringe-factor. But the real greatness of the genre lies in the revenge portion – no matter how over the top, no matter how grand guignol, no matter how sadistic, you can’t fault the vengeance of a woman who has been violated. It’s one of the few times when you can be happy someone is getting disemboweled and not feel so much like a sociopath. It’s a genre that I think has been really left unexplored academically and critically, and all too often rape-revenge films are dismissed as misogynistic trash when they could be more properly seen as self-loathing misogynistic trash, which is surely fascinating.
Hard Candy is a rape-revenge film through and through, even though the female avenger, Hayley, is never raped. In some ways this makes the film an audacious broadening of the rape-revenge concept, although there is an off-screen rape (and possible murder) that factors into Hayley’s actions. Hayley’s 14, and the target of her wrath is a 32 year old man who picks her up on the internet, knowing full well how old she is. I actually would have preferred that the film left the dynamic at that rather than introduce the concept of a previously raped and murdered girl – what we would get would be a ballsier film when it comes to dealing with the second act moral issues.
The film is small and intimate – except for a really jarring Sandra Oh cameo, the movie only has two characters – Hayley and Jeff, the 32 year old professional photographer whose walls are adorned with his work… and the work he has chosen to show off is filled with pubescent girls. The first act is a minor masterpiece of menace, as the two meet at a local coffee shop and get to know each other. It’s a weird bit of predator/prey dancing, made all the stranger and tenser by the knowledge that the prey thinks he’s the predator. But it’s in act two, where Hayley begins torturing Jeff – physically and psychologically – that Hard Candy becomes a seat squirmer. It’s the second act where Hard Candy earns the reputation it will one day have.
What’s funny is that the one sheet for the film has Film Threat declaring it “Terrifying!” I can’t imagine how you could be terrified by this film unless you’re an internet sexual predator – Jeff’s guilt is obvious from frame one, where we see him engage in a sexually charged instant message conversation with Hayley and arrange to meet. Of course Jeff has to be guilty for the torture to happen – it’s the rape-revenge formula. But it’s here where I feel like Hard Candy drops the ball and instead of being a brilliant and brutal movie becomes just a very good and brutal movie. See, we’re meant to question what Hayley does to Jeff – is she right? The issue becomes academic, though, because we know he is basically guilty and because as moviegoers we’re conditioned to accept this sort of vigilantism. The film doesn’t make enough of an effort to really have us question Hayley and our own positive reaction to her torture of Jeff. In fact, the film really makes a mistake by just letting us assume that a pedophile is a bad guy.
I know, I can hear you scrambling for your Outlook already, but hear me out. Pedophilia doesn’t make sense to me – not just in a sexual way but in a logical way. Pedophiles seem to be driven to commit their crimes by something they can’t control. It’s a sickness more than a perversion, and should a really mentally ill person be tortured for what they can’t control? Now here’s a moral conundrum for our times, but one Hard Candy completely avoids by having Jeff insist he’s not a kiddie toucher for an insane amount of time.
As a two-hander, Hard Candy relies on the performances of its leads, and Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson act their little hearts out, never quite getting into the area of hamminess. It’s a thin line in a film like this – when you’re tied to a metal table with your pants around your legs how far is too far? My only complaint about Page would be one that seemingly comes from the script – her Hayley is preternaturally mature, to the point where you lose sight of the fact that she’s 14. Hayley’s age is key in making the film as disturbing as possible – it’s not just that she’s doing these things to Jeff, it’s that she’s 14 and doing them to him. Page fights past the dialogue to show us the wounded girl in her eyes… which is a weird thing to say, since Brian Nelson’s words crackle – one of the best written, most literate screenplays in years. Sometimes things can be a little too well written, though.
The third act of a rape-revenge movie can often be the best – it’s when the woman exacts her bloody vengeance on the creeps who raped her. Hard Candy briefly tries to turn that on its head – Jeff takes on the role of the violated seeking revenge – but in the end it kind of falls apart. We get some very silly plot machinations and an ending that just doesn’t work and isn’t satisfying. It’s frustrating because up until this point the film was working on almost every level – as mentioned, Nelson’s screenplay is stellar, the two leads give great performances, and director David Slade has an elegant and subtle eye (there’s a surgical scene where Slade’s camera keeps drifting off to a red wall that’s just superb). So when all these elements go away and we find ourselves in a very standard stalk/chase scenario, it’s easy to be disappointed.
But the rest of the film does not disappoint. For most of its running time, Hard Candy is a tension machine, keeping you on the edge of your seat, and in some of the rougher moments possibly hiding underneath it. Very impressively it’s also a first feature. And by the way, don’t let my description of Hard Candy as a rape-revenge film throw you off – I think you could take this movie and transfer it to stage and it would be just as compelling and intense. This isn’t a movie that’s about gore or violence, but more about the concept and fear of violence, and more about the interplay between these two characters.