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Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: Hard Candy (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Slade
Starring: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson

David Slade’s Hard Candy is an aggressive little gem of a movie that pushes itself – and the audience – to the very edge. It goes places that few films will go and does so with admirable finesse, never allowing its subject matter to overpower the film itself. It is a very carefully constructed and firmly guided film that allows its actors the freedom to explore some of the darkest reaches of human nature. It can, at times, be a difficult film to watch, but it is well worth the effort.

It opens on an online chat between Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer, and Hayley (Ellen Page), a 14-year-old girl, as they make plans to meet in person. They meet over coffee and flirt – he’s confident and says the right things at the right times, she starts off guarded but becomes increasingly bold with him. They go back to his house and dance ever closer to the line. He offers her a drink, which she declines by informing him that she knows better than to accept a drink she didn’t mix herself. She’ll mix the drinks – and prove her point in the process.

When Jeff comes to, he learns of Hayley’s true intentions. She isn’t a naive little girl waiting to be taken advantage of, but rather a kind of vigilante who has been keeping tabs on Jeff and waiting for him to fall into her trap. It isn’t simply that she thinks he’s a pedophile; she also believes that he’s involved in the murder of a teenage girl. What unfolds is a brutal psychological game as Hayley diligently goes through his life, dismantling it and holding a mirror up to it to force him to see it for what it is. Later she reveals her intention to castrate him and encourages him to beg her not to. Jeff’s day only gets worse from here.

Hard Candy runs contrary to the conventions of mainstream storytelling. There are several points where you think that the film has to start pulling back and yet it never does; it just keeps charging forward into darker and darker territory. It runs at a high intensity that builds in a very effective way, starting with the dangerously calm scenes of the initial seduction, to the growing aggression of the later scenes – there is hardly a denouement; it instead ends at the peak. The film – and in particular its actors – ought to be commended for being willing to really go there, but while the plot does get to exactly where it needs to be, there are some problems with the structure of the story. The constant repetition of Jeff almost gaining the upper hand only to get knocked out once again by Hayley becomes a bit tiresome after the third or fourth time that it happens, although the battle between the characters regains some momentum by the end of the film, when there’s a greater sense that it could go either way.

Most of the film consists simply of Wilson and Page, who play off each other well in the various incarnations of their characters. Both begin the film as characters playing characters, later dropping their masks – Jeff slowly, as his carefully constructed persona is stripped away from him and Hayley more quickly, like a band-aid being ripped off. Wilson is fine in his role, particularly towards the end as he watches his entire life unravel before him, but it’s Page who really owns the film. As Hayley she holds nothing back so that you almost end up feeling sorry for Jeff at certain points. It’s another role which shows what an interesting actress she is – unlike any other actress her age that I can think of – and what potential she has to become even better as she continues to grow as an artist. Director David Slade also shows a great deal of promise, his previous work as a director of music videos apparent in the pacing and fast-cutting of the more intense scenes. It’s a high energy film that manages to maintain its momentum right up until the very end and a fascinating study of two unusual characters.


Vanessa said...

I wrote about this a while ago http://www.themovieness.com/2008/11/17/hard-candy/

Alex said...

You're so right about Ellen Page. I really hope she continues to take interesting and challenging roles and doesn't always end up the "quirky" girl in a romantic comedy (I didn't like Smart People very much). I really look forward to her upcoming projects.