Hard Candy is a hard ride
Hard Candy is hard viewing — as it should be
Written by Brian Nelson
Directed by David Slade
Released April 14, 2006
Hardy Candy opens with an angled shot of a computer screen, where a flirtatious on-line chat is taking place between Lensman319 and Thonggrrrl14. Before long, we learn that the former is 32-year old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) and the latter, 14 year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page. After a brief on-screen exchange and as the camera moves ever-closer to the screen, Hayley types,
"okay, let's do it
hook up i mean"
and the viewer knows they're in for some kind of ugly ride.
The camera cuts to a close of a piece of cake being bitten into with a fork and we hear Hayley moaning with (almost) an orgasmic pleasure. When at last we see her face, she looks oh so young — and her lower lip is dirtied with chocolate.
Jeff approaches from behind, asks her name and Hayley, embarrassed, says she'd hoped to seem more sophisticated when they met. She asks if he wants some cake and he says yes, then cleans her lip with his thumb.
Page plays Hayley perfectly. Struggling for sophistication beyond her years, a little nervous, maybe even a little scared, but determined not to make a fool of herself.
Despite our knowledge that Kohlver is a 30 year-old man who has been knowingly flirting with that very young girl, Wilson makes him charming, even sympathetic. Maybe he's not a predator, maybe we're simply about to witness the blossoming of an unusual friendship, a la the under-rated 1999 Sarah Polley vehicle Guinevere, an age-gap relationship psycho-drama.
But this is not that kind of movie. No, it's a thriller (I prefer the old-school term, suspense, but that seems to have gone by the way-side) and I give little away by saying so.
By the 10:40 mark, Hayley has agreed to come back to Jeff's place.
The film includes almost no incidental music or sound effects, but the wordless drive to Jeff's very stylish digs is very effectively accompanied by a quietly ominous instrumental.
I don't want to bore you with an extended précis, nor do I want to risk giving away any of the many twists and turns of the plot. Suffice it to say that this movie is a thriller and that it is not another woman-in-the-refrigerator story.
I will say that, not long after Hayley and Jeff have arrived at his place, Hayley has drugged him and he awakens tied into a rolling chair.
And the thriller begins.
By "thriller", I don't mean gore, nor running and chasing and there are no big explosions here. Hard Candy is all about dialogue and suggestion, a battle of wills, not brawn (to be fair, there are a few scenes of physical struggle as well, shot in a low-keyed fashion that is nevertheless incredibly intense.
As in Hitchcock's Rear Window, first-time director David Slade makes the claustrophobic most of a single set and a dialogue-heavy script. There is no cheating here but only a relentless tension that doesn't break until the very end.
And that climax, when it arrives, does so like an unhappy orgasm; not so much a pleasure as it is simply a relief — one can only shout "Oh my god!" at the screen so many times before one is desperate for the ride to be over.
But is it Art?
Paedophilia is a pretty hot topic these days. Children are worried about and protected as never before — at least, as never before in my life-time nor those of my parents. Our instantaneous mass communications system means that a child abducted in Alberta becomes national news, perhaps international, and every incident adds another layer to to the burden of paranoia under which so many of us operate.
But Hard Candy isn't "about" paedophilia any more than it is "about" castration, nor even the psychology of revenge or the morality of vigilante justice.
And neither is it "about" any kind of feminism, except in the most implicit way. Hayley Stark is at no point an object in the film, she is one of two subjects, as fully (or as shallowly — your mileage may vary) realized a character as her antagonist.
David Slade and Brian Nelson seem to properly understand that didactic art is almost invariably bad art. There are no lessons in Hard Candy, no cheap psychology to "explain" the characters.
There is only a story and, when it is done, it is up to the viewer to make sense (or not) of what they have witnessed.
Both principal actors are excellent in their roles and a special nod must be given to Page, who was only 17 when the movie was shot. She is utterly convincing as a preternaturally sophisticated 14 year-old girl, by turns skittish and implacable, coquettish and naive (and when, at one point late in the proceedings, her plan seems to have come apart, her fear and desperation are almost tangible).
One may quibble that no 14 year-old has as sophisticated a vocabulary as is provided by Nelson, but then again, it's a big world and the variety of human capabilities is vast; while watching, I had no trouble suspending my disbelief and, in retrospect, I think I still can.
Hard Candy might not (quite) reach the heights of Great Art, but as a thriller, it is as intense and suspenseful a ride as I have encountered in a very long time, and one that insults neither the viewer's rational nor moral intelligence.