Despite all the trappings of an upside-down contemporary tale befitting its in-your-face title, this film turns out to have a soft center.|
by Brent Simon, published on Tuesday, September 19, 2006 at 3:45 PM
A spare, streamlined two-hander, Hard Candy, new this week on DVD, is an independent film that could easily be fleshed out and repurposed as an episode of Law & Order, so juicy are its social and political components. The movie, written by Brian Nelson and directed with low-fi panache by music video helmer David Slade in his feature debut, assays, somewhat haphazardly within the confines of the psychological thriller genre, the tables-turned games between an online sexual predator and his adolescent prey. Its $30,000-per-screen haul in super-limited release out of the gate back in April - by far the best average of any film in the nation at that time - suggested a certain incendiary topicality that could aserve Hard Candy well as it expanded, as did its rather unfortunate dovetailing with the news of a 20-year-old Canadian man, Stephen Marshall, who shot to death two sex offenders in Maine on Easter Sunday after apparently retrieving their names from the states online sex offender registry. But in the end, Hard Camdy quickly faded to just over $1 million in domestic box office, and is now primed for further consideration on the small screen.
Vigilante violence on screen is nothing new, and 2005 Sundance hit Hard Candy, despite its artistic trappings and intellectual leanings, falls definitely within that category. While on the surface a minimalist duel in the tradition of Misery or Oleanna, its interesting, in fact, how much the film is really a proto-feminist fairytale - a modern re-imagining of the cold-blooded vengeance pics of Charles Bronsons heyday all despite its inception at the hands of two men. After a cursory chatroom exchange sets the stage, the film jumps right into the first meeting between Jeff Kohlver (The Phantom of the Operas Patrick Wilson), a photographer in his early 30s, and young teenager Hayley Stark (an utterly fantastic Ellen Page), who meet up at a local coffee shop. The full checklist of uncomfortably counterfeit seductions is wholly satisfied Jeff compliments Haleys beyond-her-years intelligence, buys her a token gift in the form of a T-shirt, and they bond over their shared affinity for the band Goldfrapp. Haley returns Jeffs stilted and elliptical flirtation in kind (Oh yeah, shes asking for it, the film attempts to goad you into thinking), and they soon head back to his house.
There, after a brief tour, the alcohol is eventually brought out. In a twist, though, its Hayley who spikes a drink. When Jeff comes to, hes been tied up. In calm but calculated fashion, Hayley proceeds to explain her belief that Jeff is connected to the disappearance of another local girl. She first sets out on a quest to find child pornography in Jeffs abode and, after a while, reveals her plan to literally castrate him, pulling out a medical book and all the attendant equipment. Shes watched Jeff, it turns out, and even knows the comings and goings of his neighbors. Back in the real world, a cursory search indicates this type of revenge stalking is not without precedent. In New Hampshire, one man went to prison last year after pleading guilty to the attempted murder of two convicted sex offenders whose names and addresses he found on an Internet registry. Likewise, personal identifying information in a sex offender database was cited in the Washington slayings of two convicted child rapists last summer. Of course, then theres always the matter of mistaken identity too, something with which Hard Candy toys but ultimately tosses to the side. After New Jersey passed a sexual offender public disclosure law in the late 1990s, the family member of an offender was nearly beaten to death with a baseball bat when he was mistaken for his brother.
What makes the most recent case so intriguing, however, and what fixes it in mortal lockstep with the narrative of Hard Candy, is the alleged perpetrators lack of apparent connection to his victims. Marshall, a 20-year-old restaurant dishwasher from Nova Scotia, had come to Maine to visit his father, authorities said. Theres as of yet no evidence to suggest he previously knew either Joseph Gray, 57, of Milo, or William Elliott, 24, of Corinth, two of the 34 names and profiles he looked up on the sex offender site. (Investigators said they discovered that Marshall visited the site because he filled out a request for additional information.) Marshall committed suicide Sunday night in Boston after a Greyhound bus he was on was boarded by police. When he shot himself, Marshall had with him a laptop computer, along with two handguns, according to authorities. So is Hard Candy the film to open a wider debate into the constitutionality and-or broader moral implications of posting personal information of convicted criminals on the Internet, of possibly inciting further violence in the name of curbing it? Well no. As an entertainment, Hard Candy is a resourceful film, a very well acted film and in many ways a tremendously interesting film. What recommends it most is Page, whose ferociously charged performance is mesmerizing, and ranks easily as one of the best of the young year. Yet by the same token, Hard Candy is also ultimately a very confounding film, somewhat disappointing film and a profoundly false film. Like Alexandre Ajas High Tension, which took the stalking horror genre and gave it a retro-fitted feminist twist, Hard Candy comes across as having been framed by the overt commercial ambitions and motivations of their makers. Shot by Jo Willems (London) and constructed by Slade as a veritable expo of primary colors and uncluttered sterility, where everything is just so, Hard Candy is an excellent idea for a short film, and Slade has a great touch with the queasy-sleazy underpinnings that inform the movies basic premise. Still, you can see the laboriousness of its construction and feel its wheels turning in its elongation to feature-length, nowhere as much as in the repetitive dialogue that mires down much of the second act. Like Saw, Hard Candy takes considerable delight in the macabre machinations of its victims, although here of course that word is further spring-loaded, and on the surface certainly more deserved. In alternating between the quippy and brusque, though, Hard Candy never locates a satisfying, believable tone. That all its castration talk is prolonged to willfully torturous lengths could be forgiven (or indeed, embraced as being part of the point) were the film much more inspired in its interplay. Unfortunately, much of the natural tension Hard Candy accrues over the first half of its running time dissipates via a series of tedious, merry-go-round exchanges between Hayley and Jeff.
The real deal-breaker, though, is a nonsensical ending that just unravels wildly, bad stock dialogue and everything. (Wilson is actually required to utter the phrase, Mrs. Tokuda made you with sneering glee, thus counting on a neighbor unseen by him). Its here that Hard Candy most evinces its lack of a clear sense of spatial relationship, and you also start to realize that Nelsons script - for all its adroit surface detail - doesnt really have much to say, that its in fact nothing more than a rote, shrewdly packaged vengeance tale wrapped up in a cloak of profundity.
It will be interesting to see if Hard Candy strikes a chord with DVD renters. For those that want their cathartic tales of screen revenge tinged with a pinch of reality, it's probably going to play better on the small screen.