Hard Candy: Cinema of Cruelty or Exploitation Revenge Tale?

Though addressing a serious issuepedophiliaHard Candy comes across as an exploitation femme-revenge thriller in the trashy vein of Ferrara's Ms. 45, Extremities, and Fatal Attraction, with a touch of nasty brutality out of Swimming With Sharks.

The film is a sampler of cinema of cruelty for both the viewers and the male protagonist, who's held captive and physically tortured for his alleged abuse of young girls. Overextending its welcome by a good 20 minutes, the yarn devotes half of its duration to an intense torture scene in which a teenage girl prepares to castrate the accused.

While watching the movie, with plenty of time to kill, I began to compile a list of the most brutal torture scenes in American films, from Kubrick's Clockwork Orange to Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs all the way to the sleazy Swimming With Sharks (aka The Buddy Factor), to which Hard Candy bears the strongest resemblance.

Late in the game, Sandra Oh makes a brief appearance as the male's neighbor, but other than her cameo, this is very much a two-handler drama that offers its protagonists and the actors who play them plenty of opportunities to unravel secrets and layers of their identities.

What elevates the movie above its claustrophobic trappings and narrative limitations is the accomplished acting of the central couple. A newcomer to me, Ellen Page gives such an astounding and self-assured performance that she manages to make credible the most preposterous monologues and line of action of her.

Also excellent is Patrick Wilson as the photographer-molester in his most demanding role to date. It's to the credit of the filmmakers that they have chosen a handsome and appealing actor like Wilson, since older thespians, like Brian Cox in L.I.E., for example, would have change the meaning of the movie.

Hard Candy, which was inspired by a spate of real-life attacks in Japan where schoolgirls turned the tables on older men trolling the Internet for underage dates, is not without merits. The yarn begins extremely interestingly with a seductive Internet chat between a fashion photographer named Jeff Kohlver (Wilson) and Hayley Stark (Page). They quickly arrange to meet and their first encounter at a Los Angeles caf is rife with sexual tension and intellectual curiosity.

It's fascinating to watch what each character chooses to reveal about himself or herself. Hayley talks about Romeo and Juliet and a biography of Jean Seberg, singling out how the noted actress took her life tragically. Jeff talks vaguely about his work as a photographer but makes sure to flatter Hayley with a present, a T-shirt, that she immediately tries on.

One thing leads to another, and in short order Jeff invites Hayley to his posh Hollywood Hills home, where his best work is displayed on the walls. We quickly learn that Hayley is only 14, or more significantly a full 18 years younger than Jeff. Though professing to be aware of crossing legal boundaries, he offers Hayley a couple of drinks, while she continues to tease him in a manner that suggests greater maturity than her age; it's shocking to realize that Page was only 15 when she shot the picture.

After briefly passing out, Jeff awakens to find himself bound to a chair and accused by Hayley of being a molester and possibly the murderer of a young girl who Hayley knew. At first, Jeff declares complete innocence, denying that he had ever slept with one of his teenage models (his professional specialty).

Unimpressed and undeterred, Hayley starts to search the house for incriminating evidence, beginning with a dissection of his e-mails and computer graphics, which leads to a safe buried in a secret place for which she quickly figures out the code combo.

For half an hour, the cat-and-mouse game is thrilling to watch, but then the story seems to have exhausted its narrative possibilities and not much happens by way of plot or character developmentuntil the least reel. Which means that we get more of the above recriminations and denials. To alleviate the proceedings, there are some physical struggles with Jeff gaining momentarily the upper hand–until Hayley prevails again.

In the tense and prolonged climax, a helpless Jeff is tied down on a table, with a bag of ice cubes over his crotch, about to be castrated by Hayley. When the girl says, “it's time for a little preventive maintenance,” and starts shaving his crotch, we begin to suspect that her knowledge may be based on previous experience rather than medical school (as she claims).

Periodically, there are some welcome pauses from the brutal sadism. Hence, Jeff recalls a traumatic childhood experience in which he was caught by his aunt playing with his cousin, though it was the girl's pleasurable habit to jump over him wet and naked after taking a bath. In other words, Jeff had experienced fear and threatening torture before and the issue of molestation is familiar to him.

The movie then takes a turn for the worse, when it makes Hayley a crazed teenager, possibly a psychopathic liar (a younger sister to Glenn Close's Alex in Fatal Attraction), since she denies everything she had said about her past. Constantly shifting perspectives and gazes, the filmmakers seem unable to decide which direction to go.

At one point, we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Jeff, not because of his innocence but because of the extremity and joy with which Hayley take to the various forms of abusing Jeff. The very last scene, which trivializes the issue and changes the film's meaning, is disturbing but dissatisfying on any level.

Brian Nelson's uneven screenplay seems to have been constructed with theatrical skill and sensibility, though the movie is not static or stagey. It's hard to tell whether the writer deliberately sends conflicting signals or whether he could not find a plausible solution to the dilemma that he sets up.

If the low-budget movie, which could be described as “a date from hell,” appears to be stylishly sleek in the manner of commercials, it's due to director David Slade's background with music videos

For a low-budget first feature, Hard Candy flaunts good production values, with sharp wide-screen cinematography by Jo Willems, elegant and trendy dcor from designer Jeremy Reed, and striking score that serves well the twists and turns of the narrative from Molly Nyman and Harry Esscott.

But it's the astonishing acting that impresses the most, particularly Ellen Page, a major talent to watch, who has already done considerable work (unfamiliar to me). In a tough and increasingly unsympathetic role, Page makes all the right moves, handling her long dialogue sequences with bravura maturity.

Equally good is Wilson, who spends most of the time tied and sweaty, but is entirely convincing as the smooth-talking photographer. In the early scenes, Wilson recalls in manner if not in look Treat Williams and his seduction scenes with the young Laura Dern in Smooth Talk.