Much to my delight, my cable company has provided me with eleventy million movie channels by accident, and before they realize their mistake and cut me off, I’ve been watching movies that I didn’t have the chance to see before. This review is chock full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens in “Hard Candy,” I would leave now.
HARD CANDY – Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh
*** out of 5
I had heard about Hard Candy when it was doing the festival circuit as “the one where the kid foils the pedophile,” and that’s a pretty accurate way to sum it up. What that doesn’t explore is that the film is a fantastic character study thinly veiled in the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. Seriously, Page wears a red hoodie. We get it, movie. Anyway, the setup begins when Jeff (Wilson) and Haley (a pre-Juno Page) meet in a chat room and he convinces her to meet him at a coffeeshop. He’s 32, she’s 14. Helen Keller could see where this is going. They meet, they flirt, she plays the Lolita role very well, with the interesting choice of making her look not only extremely young, disturbingly so, but ambiguously gendered. The flirtation ends up at Jeff’s swank LA apartment, and that’s where his sick fantasy takes quite a turn. Aw, poor Jeff.
You see, Haley is not as sweet and innocent as she seems. Far from it. She knows about Jeff and his penchant for little girls, and, through an ambiguous and superfluous B-plot, he might have a personal investment in the disappearance and murder of another pubescent girl. Haley has a plan for Jeff, a very well thought out one, and we wonder for most of the film what her ultimate intentions are. Does she want Jeff to confess? Kill himself? Does she want to kill him herself? Is this revenge for the murdered girl or something that lies entirely with Haley? We never find out if Haley is simply taking revenge for Jeff’s past victims or if she is a vigilante for abused girls everywhere (at one point, Jeff asks in desperation “Who ARE you?” Haley’s answer clues the viewer as to her motives.)
The film is not without its flaws, of course. I was concerned at one point that it was going to become yet another “splatter porn” movie, but the castration scene ends up being more psychologically disturbing than visually graphic. I would have liked that scene more if we didn’t see anything at all, for the movie is at its strongest when it is simply close-ups of Wilson and Page, focusing on the cat and mouse dialogue. In fact, this would be a perfect script to perform in a black box setting, without a set or anything visual to distract us from the verbal dance between Jeff and Haley.
I lost some of the guys at “castration scene,” didn’t I. But we must press on!
The supporting characters, (all three of them) are completely unnecessary, and took me out of the moment. Although I love Sandra Oh, her character of the well-intentioned neighbor is absolutely nothing but an embodiment of the “oh noes, she’s gonna get caught!” plot device. Jeff’s girlfriend, too, is superfluous. She can serve her purpose in the film without ever actually being seen. Eliminate her worried close-ups and simply keep the visual of her car driving up the winding road to Jeff’s apartment. Much more intense.
And “intense” is the perfect word for this movie. Page is excellent, and her cold, calculating persona has just the right amount of cracks to make her human, if a bit verbose for a 14 year old. Wilson, most well known as the pretty boy in the recent “Phantom of the Opera” remake, does well with the vacillation between a sick perpetrator and a terrified man not only trying to survive, but coming to terms with who he really is.
Then there is the issue that hit me as soon as Haley’s true intentions are revealed. What would I do? If a child rapist was at my mercy, what, exactly, would I do? Would my plan be as intricate and brilliant as Haley’s, or would I just smash his skull in with the nearest blunt object? Self-insertion into the plot and Haley’s motivations is easy to do, and that’s where the script is the most successful.
I won’t give away the ending, but I’m ambivalent about it, mostly because I don’t know if that would be what I saw as the ultimate answer. But the mere fact that I became that invested in Haley’s plan says a lot for the movie. I’m glad I finally saw it.