Ed. note– I read on the net that “hard candy” is sexual predator terminology for underaged prey. I don’t know if that’s fact or not, but sometimes Halloween candy bites back.– P.F.
I remember seeing a trailer for HARD CANDY in a theatre, and being simultaneously enticed to see it and frightened by it. After whatever flick I was seeing, I walked out and saw the film’s poster. Here was some potent advertising that promised a controversial, alluring film that would have me questioning who is the monster, who is the victim, and can one person be both. The advertising also scared me, though, and it wasn’t until years later I rented the DVD off Netflix and found it to be my favorite Patrick Wilson film. It’s a twisted, powerful movie with two great central performances, not an easy watch, and even after multiple viewings over the years, it’s still frightening. That speaks volumes.
The first 20 minutes provide setup to sweet perfection. An instant message conversation between Lensman319 and Thonggrrrl14 that comes across as inappropriate chat between a grown man and a 14 year old girl leads to a meet up at a local diner. Haley appears to be a sweet, innocent kid who’s bright but she is way out of her league meeting a 32 year old. Jeff is handsome and charming, skirting the line to make this sound like an innocuous encounter that will only lead somewhere if Haley leads it there. He touches every note in the predator handbook—compliments her looks, asks questions to show he’s interested in her, buys her desserts and a t-shirt—and she naively smiles at his niceties, even going so far as to flash him her bra and torso as she’s putting on that tee.
There’s a point where he first walks in and she asks him if he wants to try her dessert. She’s got chocolate all over her lip, and in a suave yet creepy maneuver, he wipes some off with his thumb and tastes it. When they get in his car and head to his house in the hills, the flick is leading to a dark place, especially when he pours out some vodka for them both. It goes dark places. Believe me. But not the dark places I expected.
Because all is not what it seems about Haley in those first 20 minutes. Listen closely to her every line of dialogue, because it’s all going to come back to haunt Jeff. Instead of a sweet innocent, Haley is an avenging angel ready to bring down wrath on Jeff. She drugs and ties him down, and upon his revival his past starts to come out. He’s a photographer, but has he taken pornographic photos of underage girls? Is he in any responsible for a missing local girl? What was he doing in those chat rooms talking up young girls? That word “girls” keeps coming up, and Jeff sure seems like he’s a pedophile, given all the circumstantial evidence. At first, Haley seemed in the right, bringing Jeff to justice so he can commit his sick crimes no longer. But HARD CANDY is not about justice, not at all, and if it had gone that route, it would have been just another Lifetime movie. Instead, director David Slade and Brian Nelson elevate the story to art that is challenging, dangerous and scary.
Because HARD CANDY has no use for justice. In its place, Haley wants vengeance. And here’s where things get gray for me, and also why the film is such a success. Haley is an amoral creature who has no problems with her compulsions to use a taser or pour bleach into Jeff’s mouth, as long as she satisfies her goal to make Jeff pay for his crimes. She’s just as manipulative as he is, leading him into the trap at his house and twisting him at every turn to punish him and get him to confess. But her mission is just as dark as what she’s accusing Jeff of having done. I can’t empathize with her at all, and though it frightens me that many who saw the film were likely cheering her on, I don’t believe that’s what Slade and Nelson were going for. There’s a point about an hour into the film which I won’t ruin—you’ll know it when it hits—where she commits an act so heinous that I’d be even more frightened of her than him if I were locked in a room with them both. The movie asks if this brazen, homegrown vigilantism administered by a teenage girl is justifiable, and I can’t answer yes.
Which leaves us with Jeff. Blurring the moral line even further, Jeff doesn’t admit to her accusations. There’s no hard evidence that he’s guilty of being a pedophile or murderer, and maybe he’s neither. He tries to portray himself in a positive light throughout, including his photography for environmental causes, and plays the victim as an excuse for going into those chat rooms. He says he’s a lonely guy, he makes offers to pay for her therapy, several times states he’ll turn himself into the cops to avoid the Hell Haley threatens to bring down on him. And because he’s so suave and charming, even under great duress, I could buy in on what he’s saying. But he’s also the guy who brought a 14 year old back to his place and tried to give her vodka. There’s also one key point, late in the game when it looks like he might have turned the tables on Haley, when he makes a decision that shows he’s more interested in his own brand of vengeance than bringing her to justice. So I can’t sympathize with him either. While she’s amoral, he’s immoral, and I can’t decide which is worse in this bargain.
That should present a problem in itself, as there are no good guys here. It’s not, though, because of the acting between Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Patrick Wilson is one of my favorite actors. He can elevate a bad movie, and when given the right material, he can make a great one. He’s charming and simultaneous creepy when the film begins, and once he’s under duress, he goes through the gamut of emotions. There’s one point where he’s strapped to a table, Haley tormenting him, and he just gives up. It’s powerful acting, proof positive why I’ve always thought Wilson should be a bigger star. Page is every bit his equal, shifting from her early sweet naïveté to harsh tormentor on a dime. It’s amazing that she was just 17 at the time of filming, because her acting is light years ahead of what a child should be able to accomplish. There’s a scene early on where she puts Jeff’s glasses on, as if to say she’s the suave one running the show now, and Page owns it. The dynamic Page and Wilson create is next level stuff that brings out the best in each of them, and keeps the film from being a talky bore. There’s never a second between them that isn’t electric, and this is why this is my favorite film of Wilson’s. Kudos to them both, for giving their all to two morally reprehensible characters.
They’re working off a great script, which also elevates the film. Everything the two say early comes back later, as Nelson has crafted a tight story. For a first time screenwriter, Nelson’s dialogue is impressive, and gives the actors a lot to bite into. I can imagine it must have been exhausting to write such intense, dark back-and-forth, and Nelson pulls it off with aplomb.
As does David Slade from the director’s chair. There are all sorts of closeups of piercing eyes, cameras swinging through and around rooms, shots of Haley’s face right in Jeff’s, all of which keep the film fluid and interesting. Slade isn’t afraid to let his camera hang on a character’s face for a while, or go handheld during a frenetic action scene. I’m not usually a fan of shakycam, but here it captures the intensity when Slade needs it to. Slade is an interesting choice to direct HARD CANDY; he’s helmed some of the better episodes of Hannibal¸ and I loved his 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. He’s got a dark sensibility that fits the material well, and I’m impressed that this film comes off so well for a first time director.
HARD CANDY would likely turn off a lot of people because of its controversial storyline and unsympathetic characters. Of that I was aware from the poster and the trailer. But if you bail on it for those things, you’re missing out on a superior film. Sure, the candy is hard, but it’s also sweet perfection.