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  • 18
  • Drama, Thriller
  • 2005
  • 104 mins

Hard Candy

Hard Candy

Synopsis

Ellen Page turns the tables on Patrick Wilson in this controversy-courting feature debut from David Slade, part exploitation thriller, part morality tale

About

14-year-old Hayley (Page) finally agrees to meet a much older man in a coffee shop after exchanging risqué messages with him for three weeks in an internet chatroom. From the moment Jeff (Wilson), a clean-cut thirtysomething fashion photographer, comes in, Hayley has her eye on him, and after further flirtation she invites herself over to his place. There she mixes them both some screwdrivers, proposes a photo shoot, and begins stripping down to her underwear. Jeff's vision blurs... and he wakes up bound to a chair, with Hayley ransacking the house for evidence of his previous encounters with underage girls (including one who has gone missing), and ominously brandishing a surgical scalpel for what she calls "a bit of preventive maintenance".

Thoroughly confounding the 'normal' relationship between abuser and victim, first-time director Slade presents a complex morality tale under the guise of an exploitation thriller. The film's considerable tensions hinge upon the questions of how guilty Jeff really is, and just how far Hayley is willing to go, dividing the viewer's sympathies between two intimately bound characters, one perhaps a sly paedophile, the other an apparently callous tormentor.

It is a challenging ethical dilemma, and Nelson, in his screenwriting debut, ensures that Hayley and Jeff cover every shade of grey in crime and punishment, in scenes that will have the film's captive audience squirming and wincing uncomfortably in its seat along with Jeff himself.

Far more ambiguous is the question of Hayley's motivations and identity, explicitly raised, if not unequivocally resolved, near the film's end. Is she a self-appointed vigilante, a champion of her fellow teens, or a victim of abuse? Is she a restless ghost seeking satisfaction as in High Plains Drifter, or the embodiment of Jeff's own self-tormenting conscience as in Audition? Or is she just, as the film's final image hints, Little Red Riding Hood, turning the tables on a dangerous predator in a very contemporary fairytale? Each of these competing scenarios is suggested, and none is entirely ruled out, so that Hard Candy acquires a genuine psychological complexity and enough open-endedness to reward viewers for playing and replaying its narrative in their heads long after the initial shock of its smoke-and-mirrors torture sequences has worn off.

If Hard Candy has a failing, it is the excessive wordiness of its script, betraying Nelson's origins as a playwright; and while Hayley's creative taunting is an essential part of her onslaught upon Jeff, it does become somewhat repetitive by the end. Yet for all its staginess, the two-character format is kept dynamic by black humour, some claustrophobic camerawork (that, in the tradition of Hitchcock, always shows less than it appears to) and two very intense performances.

No doubt the divisive politics of this film will provoke many a heated argument; but it is entirely uncontroversial to claim that Hard Candy heralds the arrival of Ellen Page as an extraordinary talent in the making. Her Hayley, though a difficult character to pin down, is terrifyingly convincing, and a whole new brand of teen heroine.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh
  • Director: David Slade
  • Screen Writer: Brian Nelson
  • Producer: Richard Hutton, David W Higgins, Michael Caldwell
  • Photographer: Jo Willems
  • Composer: Molly Nyman, Harry Escott

In a nutshell

Like a torturer, Hard Candy extracts unpalatable truths from its squirming audience. Revenge may be sweet, but it is rarely so hard.

by Anton Bitel

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