Hard Candy

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/27/06 22:41:32

"Two parts sheer brilliance, one part contrived mess."
3 stars (Just Average)

The first few minutes of “Hard Candy” manage to produce an excruciating amount of suspense, and yet not a single act of violence is committed, or even threatened. The tension comes not from what will happen, or what the plot tells us might happen, but simply from what we think we know could happen. The scene gives us a smart, charming, naïve 14-year-old girl, who is meeting for the first time someone she knows from the internet: a smart, charming, friendly 32-year-old man. The older man does nothing to indicate danger; in fact, he is overly polite and makes repeated assurances that nothing could come of such a relationship.

We know better, because we have seen the news. This is how very, very bad things begin. We know it, the filmmakers know it, and surely the characters must know it, right? And that is the inescapable terror that envelops us in the opening scene of this film. The whole thing unfolds like a meet cute in some slight romantic comedy, the only difference being the age gap. It’s the sheer lack of overt horror that ultimately makes it so terrifying.

The dread intensifies when the man takes the girl back to his house (ah, that’s where he has an MP3 copy of her favorite band, you see, and sure, she’d love to head on over to check it out). There are moments where you want to reach through the screen and rescue this girl, you want to scream and shout and hope his neighbors hear. But we are helpless, stuck watching, and watching, and watching.

I will not reveal what happens next, although it is giving nothing away to inform you that “Hard Candy” is a revenge fantasy for the internet age. The film, written by TV movie vet Brian Nelson and directed by music video helmer David Slade (both make their feature debuts here), takes its cue from such works as “Audition” and “I Spit On Your Grave” - both wildly varied in quality and style, to be certain, but both, along with many others, united by the theme of a woman unleashing torture. “Hard Candy” is nowhere near as violent as these films (and nowhere near as unwatchably trashy as the vile “I Spit On Your Grave” and its grindhouse imitators). Instead, it opts for psychological torment; there is physical abuse, to be sure, but the mental anguish is much more prevalent.

It helps that Nelson and Slade tap into the general sense of anger that overtakes anyone whenever reports of child abduction and molestation lead the evening news. The girl gets to do to this creep everything you wish you could do yourself - hell yes, let’s spray some bleach down the guy’s throat, and then hand me something sharp. But the film restrains itself, refusing to go for the cheap thrills that made such revenge exploitation flicks so grimy. “Hard Candy” is looking at vengeance from an intellectual perspective, and the film is all the better for it.

More importantly, Nelson’s screenplay is most interested in playing the psychological thriller game. This allows for some clever moments throughout, including one stretch of the film where it becomes unclear if the man is in fact a serial pedophile, or if he’s just some jerk who made the wrong choice just this one time. Of course we cannot call him innocent - it’s obvious from the start what his intentions are - but we have to wonder if the girl has taken things too far.

And then come the moments where we’re not rooting for the man, but we are watching with great curiosity and even a bit of suspense: will he find a way to escape? Hitchcock pulled the same thing in “Frenzy,” getting the audience actually concerned for the villain. Slade does not match the heights of Hitch, of course, but the idea is the same. We become curious despite ourselves.

The movie has fun with toying with the viewer, but Nelson goes off track by the final act. We come to a point in the film where (most) everything can be resolved, eerily, shockingly, but acceptably. And then the screenplay keeps going, backtracking over itself, eager to pile on more and more thrills and switcheroos and such. The girl even calls what she’s doing “a game,” and that’s ultimately what the film itself becomes. As her plans become more and more convoluted, the movie loses us; we suddenly realize that the whole affair is little more than a plot-twisty number that winds up neck-deep in illogical goings-on. We stop caring for the characters and their battle of wits, and we start asking questions: if this was her master plan, why waste her time doing this and this and this? Why not just cut to the ending? “Hard Candy” collapses in its final half hour, as Nelson and Slade become desperate to deliver complicated thrills, unaware that they had us when all they were giving us was devilish simplicity.

Worse, the movie even goes for groan-worthy pretension in the final scene, which finds the girl dressed in a red hoodie. Get it? Hey! Get it?! Ugh. It’s one of those wow-aren’t-we-so-clever moments that brings everything to a screeching halt. Again, simplicity was all we needed, but the filmmakers insisted on pounding the point to death.

But even when the script goes all kablooey and the direction gets too full of itself, the brilliant cast is always there to keep things on target. The girl is played by a then-17-year-old Ellen Page (now 19, she’ll next be seen in the next “X-Men” sequel), who delivers a knockout mix of youthful innocence and deadly intelligence. She’s desperate to be dangerous, and her age only makes her more so.

Patrick Wilson (“The Alamo,” “Angels In America”), in the role of the older man, is even better. He’s perfectly chilling in the early roles, where his threat always hides under the surface; when the tables are turned and he becomes victim, we waivers between violent outbursts and helpless terror. His fits of panic, his cries of regret, his speech about his disturbed past, they’re all enough to hook you but good.

These are two amazing performances - which helps, considering not only the script’s third act problems, but also that the whole thing’s set up like a stage play, confined to limited sets, heavily dependent on dialogue. Page and Wilson not only make it work, but they keep it working no matter what.

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