by Mick LaSalle, published on Friday, April 28, 2006|
"Hard Candy" is an exploitation film, with very little happening but a guy getting tortured for about 75 minutes of screen time. Add in the fact that the guy is a pedophile and the torturer is a 14-year-old girl, and you have a movie that gets points for novelty -- but at the expense of a rooting interest, an intrinsic part of the thriller genre. There's no compensating insight, either, to help "Hard Candy" transcend its genre, no point to these proceedings, and certainly no pleasure to be had. The movie amounts to a mere wallow in ugliness and shock effect and a real bad time for all.
It promises to be more than that. "Hard Candy" has an impressive start, with 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) meeting 32-year-old Jeff (Patrick Wilson) in a coffee shop, following an Internet flirtation. As viewers, we wonder what's going on, and in lieu of an answer we get vivid close-ups, through which we can try to gauge the disturbing dynamic playing out in front of us. Both actors stand up to scrutiny, but Page's face is particularly fascinating, with its alarming mix of childhood, precocious intelligence and flirtatiousness.
What is she thinking? In these first minutes, "Hard Candy" seems as if it's about to explore the mentality of a pubescent girl who's discovering, in a dangerous way, her burgeoning sexual power. It also seems about to take us into the mind of a guy who, at least on the surface, appears normal and yet must have something seriously wrong with him, or else he wouldn't be taking a child back to his apartment. The situation and the constant close-ups suggest a psychological investigation, but after 10 minutes, that direction is short-circuited: Jeff loses consciousness and wakes up tied to a chair, with Hayley standing over him, taunting him.
This reversal is startling. It's the movie's reason for being. If "Hard Candy" is successful, it will be its claim to fame. But as is sometimes the case with startling turns of plot, this one is actually a dead-end in disguise. From here, "Hard Candy" subjects the audience to a series of similar scenes, in which a man is physically and psychologically tortured. Moreover, it does so from a weak position, offering no promise of release. If Jeff is a monster, we neither see it nor know it and therefore can't enjoy his distress. Indeed, in the normal terms of a thriller, Hayley is the monster, and yet we must watch her with no hope or expectation of her destruction.
Had screenwriter Brian Nelson something further up his sleeve, some additional twist or direction besides this one, "Hard Candy" could have been something special. But he has nothing to offer but the unusualness of the situation, the spectacle of torture and the snappy, sadistic patter of the 14-year-old girl. At first, Hayley's habitual posture of disingenuous concern is amusing, but there's a sameness about the character's reaction to every conversational gambit that becomes monotonous. In time, the character itself feels like a writer's conceit, less a feminist avenger than just another female role written by a guy.
The violence isn't graphic. It's done mainly by suggestion, but it's gruesome and harrowing. It's hard to imagine many people enjoying sitting through this or being enriched, in any way, for their pains. With "Hard Candy," the innocent are tortured along with the guilty -- the innocent, in this case, being the audience.