Saturday, July 01, 2006

Review - Hard Candy

There are few issues facing society today which provoke as much fear, anger and disgust as paedophilia. Nothing is more likely to strike horror into the hearts of parents, and a special kind of contempt is reserved for those who commit these terrible crimes. With such an emotive and delicate subject matter, it is imperative that cinema should tread carefully when venturing into this particular territory. Occasionally, filmmakers get it right, such as Todd Solondz’s bleak and brilliant Happiness or Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman; but it’s very easy for a filmmaker tackling paedophilia to get it spectacularly, horribly wrong. Guess which category Hard Candy falls into?

Hard Candy is the controversy-courting tale of a fourteen year-old girl and a man two decades her senior. The film opens on one of their internet chatroom conversations - her using the name Thonggrrrl and him under the pseudonym Lensman - and the flirtatious, teasing banter between them suggests this is by no means their first encounter. The conversation ends with the pair making plans to finally meet.

The location for this rendezvous is a cafĂ© named Nighthawks. Thonggrrrl is actually Hayley (Ellen Page), a softly-spoken, tomboyish teenager who aspires to be taken as an adult but still takes a childish glee in her chocolate dessert. Lensman soon appears in the shape of Jeff (Patrick Wilson), and he hardly fits the stereotypical view we have of what an internet predator looks like. He’s tall, handsome, intelligent and charming, and these early scenes are queasily plausible. The pair seem to share plenty of common interests, and Jeff is increasingly impressed with his young friend’s maturity. Ellen is alternately coy and brazen, and before long she has invited herself back to Jeff’s apartment. As soon as Jeff agrees to take her home, you know it’s a decision he will come to regret.

Screenwriter Brian Nelson has come up with a potentially clever conceit for
Hard Candy; a film about paedophilia in which the young girl is the hunter, not the prey. Jeff and Hayley knock back a few drinks at Jeff’s apartment, but then he makes the mistake of allowing Hayley to mix him a drink out of sight and, after losing consciousness, he awakes to find himself tied to a chair with a fierce and vengeful teenager standing over him. She is nowhere near as weak and defenceless as she first appeared, something Jeff is about to find out the hard way.

It’s just about this point at which
Hard Candy begins to unravel. The film’s collapse is gradual at first, with the unnerving set-up and skilful performances managing to maintain the viewers’ interest during the early stages. But Nelson and director David Slade keep boxing themselves into corners as they try to continually pull the rug from under the viewers’ feet and play with our emotions; and Hard Candy eventually spirals out of control, becoming more ludicrous and unpleasant every step of the way.

Hard Candy is a battle of wits between Hayley and Jeff. He’s a photographer who has a penchant for shooting semi-clad underage girls, but he claims its simply part of his job. Hayley accuses him of ‘grooming’ her over the internet, but he says he was genuinely interested in her, with their shared interest in Goldfrapp and Zadie Smith (this is one of the film’s oddest aspects; that Zadie Smith is held up as the height of sophistication) bringing them together. Throughout the film Nelson and Slade carefully hide the truth about Jeff’s alleged paedophilia; plenty of evidence is stacked against him, but much of it is circumstantial and he seems to have a convincing answer for everything Hayley throws at him.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe in any of this, and it’s even harder to care. If Hayley had been a more plausible 14 year-old then perhaps her actions would have carried more weight, but this is a 14 year-old girl who is a vengeful psycho, who knows every intimate detail about Jeff’s life, and who can lift an unconscious, fully-grown man into various positions and tie him up in knots. In truth, Nelson’s premise is not really strong enough to be stretched across this
Hard Candy’s 103 minutes, and although the subject matter is a pertinent one, the film ultimately emerges as little more than a cheap torture fantasy; a film which aspires to Takashi Miike’s Audition, but comes closer to the nasty amorality of Eli Roth’s Hostel.

The film’s centrepiece scene is one in which Hayley takes surgical measures to remove Jeff’s “weapons” and prevent him from committing more of the crimes which she believes he is guilty of. This is a horrible sequence and it proves startlingly effective thanks to Slade’s decision to focus on the two characters’ reactions and steer clear of showing anything graphic, but this is the exception for Slade rather than the rule. Too much of
Hard Candy's action is directed in hectic, abrasive fashion; with shaky camera work, colour filters and intrusive music making this unpleasant tale difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons.

Hard Candy
’s long and uncomfortable castration sequence is guaranteed to have male viewers wincing and crossing their legs, but it acts as something of a dead end for the film’s narrative, and after Nelson employs an outrageous cheat to get things moving, the subsequent action becomes little more than a run-of-the-mill slasher movie. The filmmakers seem to forget what the film was originally about at this point, and the final third could be any two anonymous people chasing each other around the house with knives. It’s generic, pointless and excruciatingly dull.

This is a shame, because there are two outstanding performances being thrown away here. When a film is a essentially a two-hander it’s imperative that both performers are right at the top of their game; and
Hard Candy benefits from two of the year’s finest pieces of acting (Sandra Oh has a late cameo, as possibly the world’s most stupid woman, but it‘s mostly confined to the central pair). As Hayley, Ellen Page gives an astonishingly assured performance which possesses a maturity beyond her tender years. Page’s ability to play both the innocent teen and the vicious torturer is a sight to behold, and she can switch moods without skipping a beat. Her victim Jeff is played with great sensitivity by Patrick Wilson, who infuses the character with feeling but maintains a level of ambiguity; it’s an extraordinarily committed performance from Wilson who acts as if his life, and his balls, really are on the line.

It’s just a pity the efforts of Page and Wilson weren’t devoted to a more worthy project.
Hard Candy is a nasty piece of work; utterly lacking in meaning and vaguely offensive for the way it uses this painfully serious subject for what is ultimately little more than an ugly exploitation flick. Nelson and Slade have nothing to offer beyond the initial disorientation of their set-up, and the film is just a long, distasteful wallow in pain and suffering. Hard Candy contains two of the best performances you’ll see anywhere this year, but they don’t offer enough to make me recommend this shoddy and empty exercise in provocation.