2005Director: David Slade
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ellen Page
tirring up a fair amount of audience disgust and ire at last year's Sundance, and then stewing on the shelf for a year—its delayed general release only adding to its intriguing infamy—Hard Candy finally sneaks into theaters rather surreptitiously, which seems only apt. It's a sly and stealthy film, always pulling the rug out from underneath just when you think you've finally gotten your footing, always grabbing you from behind, catching you unawares and clutching for your… well, sorry, no spoilers. If you want a hint, though, nearly the entirety of Hard Candy resembles nothing so much as an extension of the final grisly moments of Takashi Miike's masterpiece, Audition. Much of the distressing shock of that film is diluted here by director David Slade's decision to take a five minute scene of startling torture and sustain it for over 90 minutes, draining it of much of its shocking potency precisely by fetishizing it. Though not nearly as provocative, nor as controversial, as it thinks it is, Slade’s film is nonetheless a supremely uncomfortable viewing experience, an evil, black-hearted little thriller that more than once had me squirming in my seat in nauseated discomfort.
Despite its eventual parade of in your face torment, the most chilling moment in the film comes early on. It's small, almost a throwaway, but it saves and redeems the film from becoming mere exploitation. After weeks of chatting online, skeevy 32 year-old hipster Humbert Humbert Jeff (Patrick Wilson) finally convinces his 14 year old quarry Hayley (the precociously superb Ellen Page) to meet him face to face at a café. This initial meet up, full of stuttering false starts, coy banter, and suggestive cake consumption, would be cloyingly cute and perhaps a bit charming, if it weren't for a pesky little 18-year age disparity, and the obvious fact that Jeff's intentions, despite all his vocal protestations, are somewhat less than wholesome. Though apparently reluctant, he convinces (or is convinced to invite, depending on how you interpret later events) Hayley to come back to his place for an impromptu photo shoot (he is a professional photographer) and, of course, a little bit of… well, nothing more, because, he strenuously avers, he has the most innocent of intentions…. No, really. (The man doth protest too much!).
But then watch his face as he is driving Hayley back to his lair. They look at each other and share one of those nervous uncomfortable laughs when the conversation between newly met strangers lulls. She turns to look out the window. He turns his head the other way, and suddenly his face is lit up by a wolfish, knowing grin. It's a chilling smile of recognition and stunned surprise—he's done this before, but he still can't believe he's actually getting away with it. One of those startled smiles that says, "I cannot believe my luck! And I'm actually going to get away with this.” It's a one of those blink-and-you-miss-it moments, but it's crucial. Slade is setting us up to vilify and condemn Jeff for the obvious pedophile he is, to make sure that the hell in store for him is richly deserved and totally justified.
But Hard Candy doesn't play it that way. That's the film’s chief strength and liability. Our expectations are not upended by the narrative twist twenty minutes in, which is obvious and telescoped from the get-go. Rather, it's our sympathies which are subjected to continual reversal, and eventual obliteration. As much as Jeff deserves to be strung up for the sundry crimes that Hayley digs up in his house, she is never portrayed as a sympathetic avenging angel. Less concerned with justice than an obscure agenda that remains confused and ultimately unknown, she seems to relish making Jeff endure as much agony as possible, displaying a clinical sadism just as loathsome as Jeff's yen for underage flesh.
She lingers over her various tortures and mind games with such concentration that you feel she'd be doing this to Jeff even if he were innocent. The sexual politics and ethical quandaries we think the film will hinge on cancel themselves out, and what we see played out is a taut and efficient thriller that has no wider implications than simple survival. I'm guessing part of the audience outrage follows directly from this refusal to judge. It's refreshing to see a film that stocks itself with such hot-button subject matter only to deftly sidestep it in favor of reductive simplicity. It takes major balls to conceive of a revenge thriller that leaves the audience out in the cold—there is no satisfaction to be found here, no catharsis.
Thus, unlike a lot of films that go out of their way to be provocative and heavy-handed, the success of Hard Candy depends in large part upon what significance the audience is willing to accord its ruthlessness, what questions its willing to ask itself in the wake of such violence. This is a film that disturbs more by what it implies than what it shows; despite all its apparent ugliness, it's not the least bit visually graphic or thematically explicit. And yet, like all classics of restraint, it's precisely what isn't shown that upsets so effectively. Its scenes of brutal psychological and physical torture could've easily lapsed into audience-baiting, or stern moralizing, but Slade maintains an admirable and aloof amorality that offers up many questions and no answers. Hard Candy is not for the faint of heart, and neither is it for perverts, gore hounds, or moral crusaders. It is an aggressively dispiriting free fall into a cauldron of inchoate primal rage that dares its audience to flinch—and richly rewards those who don't.
Hard Candy is playing in limited release.
By: Jake Meaney
Published on: 2006-06-05