“Hard Candy” is a low budget psychological thriller released back in 2005, and it was one of the many movies which I rented from Netflix which has gathered far too much dust before I finally took the time to view it. But view this movie I finally did, and shame on me for putting it off for so long. These days, it feels so rare to find a thriller which touches on such controversial issues like pedophilia or the uncertainty of online dating. I mean, do you have any idea who is on the other end of the computer screen? Aren’t you afraid to find out? I’m not saying you shouldn’t go through with it, but after watching this movie, you’ll be going into it with extreme caution even from the waist up.
We see 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page, now Elliot Page) meeting up with 32-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver at a nice modern café. They have been communicating with each other via the internet, but this is the first time they have seen one another in the flesh. After the inevitably awkward introduction, they get comfortable enough to where Hayley goes back with Jeff to his house on the hills. In the process of having so much fun, however, Jeff passes out and awakens to find himself tied to a chair. Hayley has turned the tables and makes her intentions to him very clear; she accuses Jeff of being a sexual predator and is aiming to make him pay for the hideous crimes she believes he has committed.
Watching “Hard Candy” reminded me a lot of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and The Maiden” which was later made into a Roman Polanski film starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Weaver ends up interrogating Kingsley because she believes he was the one who viciously tortured and raped her years before. The problem is she only has his voice to go on as she was blindfolded and never saw who it was assaulting her. You spend your time wondering if he is innocent or not, and if Weaver’s character is overreacting.
“Hard Candy” is a lot like “Death and The Maiden” because, until the very end, you are not sure what to believe. Hayley seems pretty damn certain of Jeff’s dark nature, but he is very convincing in proving to her and the audience that she has the wrong guy. But if Jeff really is the bad guy, you have to wonder who is the sicker of the two. Hayley is more than prepared to turn this guy into a late blooming opera singer with quite a falsetto, and her lack of hesitation in doing so suggests she is not mentally balanced.
When these two first appear onscreen, we know as much about them as they about one another, so we are put into their mindset as we try to figure out what their intentions might be. Can they trust one another? Can we? If so, which one should we trust more? “Hard Candy” teases us with the possibilities of what could go wrong with this date. It’s unsettling enough that you have a 30-year-old guy hanging out with a girl who’s not even of legal driving age, but how vulnerable will she allow herself to be around him? Then again, teenagers are not as dumb as many make them out to be.
“Hard Candy” is one of those movies which stayed with me long after I have finished watching it, and there are sequences that play more on what you think you see instead of what you actually see. The effect of those moments is truly unsettling to where I almost would compare “Hard Candy” to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games.” Furthermore, the two main characters are not just two stock characters that could only exist in the movies; they are real people thrown into a situation which we ourselves hope never to get caught in. The questions it raises of justice, conscience, sickness of the mind, and others on top of them will have you delving into long conversations with those you just witnessed the movie with.
Now a 14-year-old person taking control of an older man and having a surprisingly strong knowledge of medical procedures may feel totally unbelievable as it may seem like something out of a John Grisham novel like “The Client.” This, however, just highlights the brilliance of Page’s performance as Hayley Stark. “Hard Candy” proved to be her big breakthrough in America, and she made this one before “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Juno.” Page handles all the complexities of this character like a pro, making her seem all the more frighteningly real. The camera locks right into Page’s gazing eyes which show a determination of action she can never be easily pulled away from. She is truly amazing to watch here.
Patrick Wilson essentially plays the more reactive role, and watching him is painful as it truly looks like he is suffering more than he is acting. It’s not surprising to hear he passed out in one very intense scene (trust me, you will know which one I am talking about), and he gives an excellent performance in a role most actors are not necessarily in a hurry to play. Over the past few years, Patrick has given strong performances in movies like “Little Children” and “Watchmen,” but this easily stands out as some of his best work. You remain suspicious of his character throughout, but darn it, seeing him suffer makes you feel for the guy even if you don’t want to.
“Hard Candy” marked the directorial debut of David Slade who made music videos for various artists including Stone Temple Pilots and Tori Amos. I liked how he captured the sterile appearance of Jeff’s post-modern apartment and of how it is forever changed by the vicious actions of these characters. He also maintains a strong level of suspense and tension throughout the movie, something which never seems easy to do these days. Since this film, he since gone on to direct “30 Days of Night” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but I’m guessing neither have the power this one film has.
Made for around $1 million, “Hard Candy” is a very effective thriller for those willing to plumb its dark psychological depths. The power of suggestion of certain scenes will be more than enough to drive those lacking a strong stomach out of the room, but if you like this kind of movie, it no doubt delivers. It’s also a hell of an acting showcase for Wilson and Page, but even more so for Page who has since gone on to a great acting career. The movie leaves its mark on your consciousness and will stay with you long after the credits are done. There are only so many movies I can say that about these days.
* * * ½ out of * * * *