Written by Daniel Woolstencroft, Published June 06, 2006|
Hard Candy begins with an instant messaging session. Thonggrrrrrl14, represented by a bright red heart, and Lensman319 appropriately using a camera icon are chatting flirtatiously. The entire conversation is filmed in extreme close-up; the horizontal bars of the computer screen are clearly visible, every tiny detail from the clickety-clack of typing, to the ping of a new message arriving is captured in intense detail. It's a style that remains consistent throughout the film, and an opening that suggests you're in for an unconventional ride.
It's difficult to review a film like Hard Candy without straying dangerously close to spoiler territory - a harsh, unforgiving land that I always try to avoid. I don't intend to give anything away here that isn't apparent by looking at the film's web site, or reading the plot synopsis. If I offend you by giving away too much, you might want to consider locking yourself in a cupboard until the next film you wanted to see is released.
The initial chat session reaches its resolution with Thonggrrrrrl14 suggesting she meet Lensman319 in a local diner, and it's here that we first meet the two people we'll be spending the next hundred minutes with. The diner encounter makes for uncomfortable viewing, but for all the right reasons. Hayley (played by Ellen Page) flirts outrageously with Jeff (Patrick Wilson) and he smoothly reacts. Watching a 30-something male charm his way around this innocent 14-year-old just isn't right. The intention is made even more obvious by Hayley's choice of dress: a red-hooded jacket (an image which has spawned its own Internet campaign).
And yet director David Slade relishes the opportunity to show us every intimate nuance of Hayley's expression. Every amorous lick of the lips, or embarrassed head movement is depicted in such close-up detail that much of the subjects face extends beyond the visible frame. And as Hayley decides to go home with Jeff, the viewer can't help but feel concerned for her well being. It's apparent that Jeff has carefully manipulated the encounter, and isn't just the charming photographer he claims to be.
It continues. More flirting. More close-ups. More tension. The actors deliver their lines with an utterly convincing level of charisma, and the audience is swept unwittingly along. We're enthralled by this disturbing dance, just as Hayley is. And yet, as this unfolds, we're all too aware that convention dictates things will end up in a bad place. And we're certain that we don't want to be there when it happens. For a moment, it appears that Hayley has bitten off far more than she can chew.
But Hard Candy isn't about convention. It's about two phenomenal performances, and a magnificent piece of direction and cinematography. In many ways, Hard Candy is like watching an incredibly well-produced play - which is perhaps unsurprising given writer Brian Nelson's stage work. It's just that instead of sitting several rows back, you're sitting inches from the cast's face.
Just as with the opening scenes, even as Hayley turns the tables on Jeff, we're shown every minute expression on their faces. But now we're seeing disgust, contempt, outrage, fear.
And just like that, in the time it takes to transition from one scene to the next, we are completely disorientated. We thought we knew where this was going. And now this innocent, dare to say defenseless girl has the upper hand. She's calling the shots. We had our suspicions about Jeff, but we don't actually know that he's done anything wrong. Maybe Hayley isn't as adorable as she seems...
What follows and the vast majority of the film's duration is devoted to this is a sort of moral tennis: each character tries their best to prove that the other is a troubled, almost inhuman creature. They try to convince each other that they're sick, and dangle cures in an attempt to gain the upper hand. But just as one side seems to be winning, the tables flip again. It's a close-quarters psychological game of cat and mouse, taking place entirely in and around a single house, and unfolding in, essentially, real time.
Despite containing one of the most hideous torture scenes in recent memory (forget Hostel) the film contains a surprising amount of humour. There are some very funny lines I'll never be able to think the same way about the phrase "Preventive Maintenance" even during said unpleasantness. This particular scene depicts perhaps the most extreme, personal violence one gender can exact on another, but as with the best horror it's all in the mind. In more ways than one.
Ellen Page is a revelation. I hope she has a very bright career ahead of her. She's captivating, for the most part utterly convincing, and manages to convey a range of emotions with very subtle facial expressions. Wilson is more than capable of matching her, and even though his performance requires a very different range of emotions, it's still a convincing portrayal. It's telling that, despite Page's appearance in X-Men: The Last Stand (as Kitty Pryde), a film I saw only a few days ago, I completely failed to recognise her.
That said, David Slade's direction is an important part of the film's success. The performances he's managed to achieve, the camera movements (one of which might just be a Sam Raimi homage), and the use of light and colour is astonishing. Slade also has an impressive sense of restraint; for a man who's cut his teeth directing music videos, Slade has his A.D.H.D firmly under control. He doesn't over-use unstable shaky-cam moments, he slides the camera in and out of focus with subtle ease, and knows just what angles he wants to use to best capture his actors.
Slade's next project is the film adaptation of Steven Niles' 30 Days of Night. On the strength of Hard Candy, I genuinely cannot wait. It's superb source material, and with Slade attached I think we could be in for something special. It'll be interesting to see if Page or Wilson make an appearance.
Hard Candy does a good job of sustaining the tension throughout its duration, only stumbling in the last few minutes thanks to a disruptive appearance by Sandra Oh. It slows down what should be a full-throttle descent into the film's climax and would benefit from a little trimming. It's a minor quibble though: Hard Candy is an impressive exercise in filmmaking. It's thought provoking, incredible to look at, and curiously entertaining. I'm genuinely pleased that, for once, a film I've heard so much about has lived up to my expectations.