Hard Candy is a compelling and frustrating film. It has a million-dollar premise, and the determination to follow it through. Some will call the film exploitation, and they will have evidence: the movie plays games, and ultimately it sacrifices believability for thrills. But its rage feels too genuine to dismiss it out of hand. Either that or it fakes us out.
The scene begins with a parent’s nightmare. We see the on-screen text of a sexually suggestive online chat. After three weeks of this foreplay, the participants agree to meet in a café. The girl, Hayley (Ellen Page), is smart, verbal, and nerdy. Also she’s an eighth-grader. The good-looking man, Jeff (Patrick Wilson), is more than twice her age. She flirts awkwardly, excited and nervous. He touches her lip, removing a smudge of chocolate frosting, and tastes it. On a hazy and bright Los Angeles afternoon, we watch, impotent, as they get into his car.
The exterior of Jeff’s house in the Hollywood hills is shot with speeded-up film, which makes the trees seem to vibrate, as if in warning. Inside, the house is a clean, modern ranch, painted in vivid hues, with slits of vertical blinds that seem to obscure secrets. The walls are hung with portraits of teenage girls. The pictures are not explicit, but they are uncomfortably fetishized. Hayley asks what Jeff gets out of having them there. He is a professional photographer; the pictures, he says, are his portfolio. What parent would want his services after seeing a portfolio like that? Bait, is more like it. In front of a bright orange background, they drink screwdrivers that Hailey has prepared. "They tell us young things not to drink anything we don’t mix ourselves," she says.
Hayley begs Jeff to photograph her. "You have to reveal yourself when you model," he says. "Most people are too afraid; they only reveal themselves through weakness." He begins taking pictures. She dances on the couch, and strips off a layer. Now Jeff seems unsteady; he barks commands. Is another personality emerging, one capable of violence? The movie’s photography itself stutters and blurs. And then…
In order to tell you what Hard Candy is, I will need to reveal some of its secrets. Hayley has slipped Jeff a Mickey. He awakens to find himself tied to a chair. She has come well-prepared to the party; her backpack is filled with all the supplies she will need to bring Jeff to poetic justice.
The movie knows some things about the mind of pedophiles, or seems to. Many of us believe that killing’s too good for them; the movie is a working out of our darkest revenge fantasies. As the film peels back Jeff’s false empathy and manipulation, it is also holding a mirror up to us. We may not like what we see.
One climax would have been enough; but Hayley is a mastermind to rival the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw movies, and the entry of a deus ex machine at the end of the game is too contrived to be believed. I wish the film had been simpler, like David Mamet’s test of wills, Oleanna , where dialogue, acting, and tense direction supply all the thrills. Hard Candy is, in the end, too histrionic to be of much use. I recommend instead The Woodsman , a thoughtful film about a pedophile who has paid his debt to society, and is now trying to control his impulses. Seek it out on DVD.
Hard Candy is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.