First time director David Slade’s film “Hard Candy” is an impressive and challenging entry into the revenge thriller genre. The film opens by introducing us to Jeff (Patrick Wilson, “The Phantom Of The Opera”), a 30-something photographer and Hayley (Ellen Page, “X-Men: The Last Stand”), a boyish and precocious 14-year old girl, who meet on an internet chat room and decide to meet in person. The two are rather uneasy at first, but this initial apprehension quickly gives way to Hayley’s increasing boldness. In short order, she convinces Jeff to take her back to his place and is making screwdrivers and dancing around in his living room. From there, things take a turn for the nasty.
Here’s a subject that is as ‘in the now’ as the Iraq War: With the recent proliferation of websites like Myspace and Facebook, and a series of ‘Dateline NBC’ expos’s, pedophilia and online predators have become the latest cause c’lebre of Family Rights activists. Now, pedophilia is something that most all of us would agree is quite detestable, but Slade’s film approaches it from a reverse angle. What if the ‘victim’ is the aggressor? What if the pedo gets abused? What begins as the evil adult preying on a helpless child quickly morphs into a gruesome revenge fantasy that finds Jeff drugged and tied to a metal table with his pants around his ankles while Hayley lays out an assortment of surgical tools. It actually sounds familiar, but the film doesn’t have as much in common with ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as its promotional posters would suggest.
Slade keeps the film focused on the present, giving only lip service to what happened to bring the two leads together and what happens as a result of their confrontation. This approach is only partially successful. The actual fracas between Haley and Jeff is tense and intriguing, but the final result is a rather empty victory. Jeff doesn’t come across as being as bad a guy as Hayley wants us to believe he is, and Hayley isn’t as morally forthright as she wants us to believe she is. The script tries to follow the moral high ground of “Nine to Five” while, at the same time, plumbing the exploitative depths of Miike’s “Odishon.” The end result is a bit laughable, as Haley becomes the self-righteous bitch while Jeff gets the viewer’s sympathy; a paradox that only seems partially intentional.
The movie loses credibility rather quickly by having Hayley’s justification hinge on the old feminist double standard that just because a woman dresses like a tramp doesn’t mean she’s looking for attention from men. She wanted to go back to his place and she busted out the booze once they got there. Can we say, “entrapment?” Unfortunately, this unfolds at about the half way point, so we are left to endure a second half of layered cat-and-mouse type antics that aren’t half as exciting as they were probably meant to be.
Also, Hayley’s plan is just a bit too well thought out. I mean, she may be a really bright 14-year old, but I found it hard to believe that a teen would develop the level of contingency planning that she works into her scheme. It just seems to play out a little too by-the-numbers, with every hiccup being dealt with as if it had been specifically factored into the overall plan. What began as shifting tidal waves of momentum eventually become swells that barely register. The script gets thinner and thinner as the film progresses, with an ending that stretches credulity to the breaking point.
The performances by the two leads are strong, however. As the weasel Jeff, Wilson does a credible job of covering a wide range of emotions from ‘gee-golly’ embarrassment to coy manipulation to sheer terror. He underplays the role such that all facets of the character are perfectly believable. As the rather too complex Hayley, Page gives the sort of bold and fully realized performance I haven’t seen since a young Natalie Portman in “The Professional.” Page appears fully assured of herself throughout, and is never overshadowed by her older co-stars. There’s definitely star potential here.
“Hard Candy” is a mostly taught, focused thriller that lets itself down by relying too heavily on contrivance and convenience. It is well made and features two strong lead performances, but too many momentum swings and too little thematic consistency prevent it from being more.
David Slade (director) / Brian Nelson (screenplay)
CAST: Patrick Wilson …. Jeff Kohlver
Ellen Page …. Hayley Stark
Sandra Oh …. Judy Tokuda
Jennifer Holmes …. Janelle Rogers
Gilbert John …. Nighthawks Clerk