Hard Candy (2005)

Hard Candy first published by Film4

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

Review: After exchanging risqué messages with a much older man for three weeks in an internet chatroom, finally 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) agrees to meet him in a coffee shop. From the moment Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a clean-cut thirty-something 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 David 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 apparently a callous tormentor. It is a challenging ethical dilemma, and Brian Nelson, in his screenwriting debut, ensures that Hayley and Jeff cover every shade of grey in their brutal dialectic on 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, however, 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 champion of her fellow teens, or herself a victim of abuse as in Death and the Maiden (1994) or Save the Green Planet! (2003)? Is she an unrestful ghost seeking satisfaction as in High Plains Drifter (1973), or the embodiment of Jeff’s own self-tormenting conscience as in Audition (1999)? 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 have 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 on Jeff, designed to wear him down, its repetitions eventually have a similar effect on the viewer too. 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 seems 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 utterly, terrifyingly convincing, and a whole new brand of teen heroine. Even if she may only have been conjured by an older man (whether Jeff, Slade, Nelson, or about half of the audience), she manages to convert male sexual fantasy into something that, in its nightmarish way, comes far closer to its uncomfortable underlying reality, making us all, like Jeff, look hard into the mirror. 

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

© Anton Bitel