Hard Candy

dir: David Slade
[img_assist|nid=910|title=What's in your basket, Little Red?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=337|height=450]
A 14-year-old girl and a 32-year-old man converse through the magic of the internet. Their flirtatious banter sounds harmless enough on one level and then completely disturbing on another. They then agree to meet in public for the first time. This does not bode well at all…

Aren’t there plenty of stories in the media, especially the American media, about children sneaking from their homes to meet significantly older perverts that they met online? The whole MySpace phenomena, which should die out within a few weeks and be replaced by some other new fad, like yo-yos, whittling or scrimshawing, has become notorious because of the occasions where oldies have gone there with
ill intentions to meet the young.

Also, these days, you can’t go into any chat room without soon discovering that whatever that alleged nubile jailbait is saying, it’s probably a fifty-year old, heavy-set FBI agent with a mortgage and an enlarged prostate pretending he’s a suggestible girl just waiting to bloom.

So it’s a pretty rich source of current material to be playing around with for this here flick by first-time director David Slade. Whatever it might sound like, the flick is not really about sex, aberrant or otherwise. But goddamn is it a rough ride, all the same.

An aura of complete wrongness surrounds the entire movie, from beginning to end, and that’s not a bad thing. Our first instinct is to fear that a predator is going to prey upon a victim, but we soon get confused as to who the predator is, and who the prey is, and why.

Hayley (Ellen Page) is a feisty little precocious minx who seems to be all excited about meeting an older guy out in public for the first time. We’re not entirely sure why at first. Jeff (Patrick Wilson) is a photographer in his thirties, and despite his ‘suave’ online flirtations with Hayley, once they meet he’s all responsible and clumsy. We suspect he has nefarious reasons for wanting to meet Hayley, and that Hayley is an innocent, but it is she who suggests they go back to his place.

The film is essentially a two-hander, meaning, 95 per cent of screen-time is taken up with Hayley and Jeff’s interactions. You see, neither Hayley nor Jeff are entirely who or what they claim to be, and one of them has an incredibly nasty agenda.

Ellen Page, last seen as Kitty Pryde in X-Men 3: Brett Ratner Should Be Ashamed of Himself, is pretty amazing in this flick. Though seventeen when this was made, she shows herself to be capable of substantial maturity in a difficult role. Though he has the less showy part, Patrick Wilson also puts in a solid performance, grounding the
proceedings when they look like they could be veering into absurdity.

I can’t actually talk too much about what goes on in the flick, or the plot, because even minor revelations will destroy a potential watcher’s experience. It’s like jumping into cold water, you have to do it all at once and head first.

It’s a pretty strong film, though hard to stomach, especially for guys. During a certain scene, I think every guy in the audience I watched it with was squirming in their seat, whilst one woman seemed to be chuckling. Though the flick is never graphic, the implications of some of the scenes are pretty vicious.

Though this isn’t a film about cruelty, or sadism, in the way recent horror flicks Hostel and Wolf Creek were (not that I have a problem with that). There is a purpose, a reason for what goes on, and the flick leaves it up in the air (at least until the end) as to whether these actions are justifiable or not.

I’m not going to pretend Hard Candy has the psychomalogical complexity or character expansiveness of some BBC fodder or an Ingmar Bergman film, but there is some depth to the dialogue, and the characters are definitely not ciphers.

All the same, you can’t really get behind either of the characters here, for various reasons. One of them seems quite insane, and the other has potentially committed horrific crimes. That lack of an identifiable character to empathise with doesn’t detract from the experience, since this isn’t an updated version of Misery. Many have compared it
to an American version of Takashi Miike’s Audition, but the flicks are very different. There’s a very different intention here, and the film lacks the subtext (and brutality) of the Japanese film.

No, here I think we’re meant to wonder about what’s going on, not simply observe it and react to it. We think about our own aversions and reactions to Hayley and Jeff, and what we gradually get to know about them. Jeff especially reveals aspects of his character in a couple of monologues where he talks frankly about his childhood. They
are well-delivered, considering the circumstances.

And Hayley? Hayley. Well, much of what makes her tick is unknowable, deliberately so on the part of the film, but that doesn’t make her any less compelling. Never underestimate the capabilities of a highly intelligent, resourceful teenage girl who can plan and organise, and think about how to deal with complicated situations that
may arise.

So I think I’ve made my case thus far that I liked the film. Here’s where I have to be honest and say that it is not without its flaws. Whilst the premise is, I guess, somewhat believable, some of the execution is not. There were several times where I thought, as certain situations were resolved, violently or otherwise, “not likely.” The flick gets where it needs to go in ways that don’t always ring true. Some of the characters’ actions and dialogue, especially closer to the end, get a bit absurd.

I still liked the ending a lot, though. It seemed appropriate, even if it didn’t seem entirely likely.

It is all mostly shot within one set location, at Jeff’s house, with some rapid editing and camera trickery indicative of the fact that the director probably cut his teeth directing pop film clips. The film looks pretty good, a lot of bright lights, strong primary colour backgrounds, and a lot of strange close-ups early on which make the lead-in even creepier before we know what’s really going on.

Regardless of the currency of the material, considering society’s hysteria over child sexual abuse at the moment, many of the thematic elements underpinning what’s going on are pretty interesting. There is a central reversal here, a reversal of the way in which these kinds of films are expected to go. The protagonist / antagonist are reversed, and that brings with it all sorts of different ideas and complications.

The script and director are to be commended for making the film look like it’s going to be a horror film, or a generic thriller, and making it something substantially more interesting. Instead of wallowing in sadism and gore, or becoming triumphant and righteous in revenge fantasy vigilantism, the film picks a trickier path between the two extremes. Victim and perpetrator are blurred so convincingly that only a mouthbreathing viewer could see any of this as an excuse, endorsement or justification.

Right and wrong become meaningless. But the truth will out all the same.

The promotional poster for the flick shows a little girl dressed to recall Little Red Riding Hood, looking like she’s about to fall into a steel trap. What I realise now is that she’s not there as the prey, but as the bait.

7 times you should think twice about taking strange little girls home out of 10, especially if you don’t want to catch something.

“Thankyou, Hayley, for showing me who I really am” – Jeff, Hard Candy.