By Manohla Dargis, published on April 14, 2006|
More sour than hard, this highfalutin exploitation flick starts with an unsavory premise possible pedophile meets the jailbait of his dreams that quickly becomes downright unpalatable. Working from an expository, intellectually clotted script by the playwright Brian Nelson, lingering in the shadows of Ariel Dorfman and Neil LaBute, among others, the director David Slade opens his first feature with his camera trained on a computer monitor. There, a teasing pas de deux is unfolding between two Internet chatters, Thonggrrrrrl14 and Lensman319. She's young (hence the 14), precocious (she namedrops Zadie Smith) and seemingly as eager as he is. They arrange to meet, silent alarms screaming.
From the chocolate smeared on her mouth and the rich color of her crimson sweatshirt, it initially looks as if Thonggrrrrrl14 is about to meet the big bad wolf in the person of her chat-room pickup, Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer nearly two decades her senior. But this little red-hooded miss, a saucer-eyed pixie called Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), soon proves very wily, and more schooled by Lara Croft than Mother Goose. After hooking up at a cafe with the regrettable name of Nighthawks, Hayley insists on returning with Jeff to his home, whereupon she chugs vodka and go-go dances on the sofa before baring the kind of sharp teeth common only to wolves and psycho chicks born out of the murkiest recesses of the (usually male) imagination.
During the ensuing narrative unpleasantness and visual incoherence (meaningless choker close-ups, pointless slow motion), Hayley subjects Jeff to a range of torture, all in the name of, well, what? Despite the two fine performances, it's hard to say. Although she claims to want to right the wrongs of this alleged fiend, what Hayley says and does to her Internet Humbert Humbert firmly makes the case that this avenging angel is really the demon daughter of Valerie Solanas and Lorena Bobbitt, and consequently as reprehensible as her prey. Viewers who find torture entertaining, even in the age of Abu Ghraib, may find this watchable. Not so those of us who, like an acquaintance, get pretty bored with people in trapped-in-apartment movies having philosophical debates while fearing for their privates.