The film directed by David Slade and written by Brian Nelson seems disturbing enough for just the subject matter alone, but it’s also eerie in how timely it’s release has been. With reports of teenage girls becoming victims of internet sexual predators appearing in all types of news media, Hard Candy arrives in the theaters through a limited release to highlight this current trend. Slade and Nelson has created an disturbing and, at times, a very uncomfortable film that shows the many twists and turns that happens when the roles of prey and predator become interchangeable.
There’s no denying that Hard Candy aims to put a new twist on the exploitation subgenre of the rape-revenge films that dominated the late 70’s and early 80’s. Brian Nelson’s clearly channeling the influences from such rape-revenge fantasy films like Mastrosimone’s Extremities and the very disturbing and exploitative I Spit On Your Grave (Day of the Woman) by Meir Zarchi. From the beginning the audience is shown the set-up of an adult instant messenging another person with the screen name of Thonggrrl14. Thonggrrl14 is in fact a 14 year-old teenage girl named Hayley and the adult on the other end a 32 year-old photographer named Jeff who goes by the screen name Lensman319. Jeff has an unhealthy and disturbing penchant for pubescent girls as the subject of his camera lens.
From their first meeting meeting at a coffee house where Jeff gradually begins a flirtatious conversation with the young Hayley to the point in the first act when he finally convinces her to go back to his house whcih doubles as his studio. There’s really no denying the sense of unease that permeates the first act as Hard Candy gradually paints Jeff as the sexual predator that he is. There’s no denying the fact that a man of his age should not be flirting and behaving as if the girl across from him is a fully-grown and developed woman of similar age. Hayley also comes across during this first act like a teenage girl dazzled by an older man who treats her older than her real age. It’s really a disturbing look at just how easily an adult can seduce a child into doing things they normally shouldn’t be doing.
Hayley (played by Juno herself, Ellen Page) soons shows just how wrong and mistaken Jeff has been in picking her as his new prey. I don’t use that word loosely for that was what this film truly was when boiled down to its basic component. A one-on-one three-act play (Brian Nelson’s experience as a playwright shows in the stage-like sequences from beginning to end) between a predator and prey. This time around the prey has turned out to be the one who has done the hunting and the consequences on the wanna-be predator that is Jeff leads to a slow and deliberate set-up that looks like something out of Takashi Miike’s Audition. Hayley’s turning the tables on her stalker shows that girls her age are intelligent enough to know that what Jeff’s doing was wrong. Hayley’s answer to that is to be the hunter instead and fix Jeff’s “problem” through what she calls as “preventive maintenance.” What she calls “preventive maintenance” will definitely cause many men watching this film to sit very uncomfortably and wince on more than once occassion.
The acting job done by Ellen Page was dazzling and really showed why she was listed as an up and coming talent years before Juno. She was technically 15 year-old when the film was made and already she showed a keen grasp of the script which deals with disturbing topics. There’s a scene in Jeff’s car as they reach his home where a passing glance of the camera at her face shows not a gullible teenager, but a determined and somewhat oft-kiltered individual who knows what she will be doing in the coming hours will be medieval harsh but in her mind justified. Patrick Wilson as Jeff plays the would-be sexual predator admirably. His range of emotions go from outright denials of Hayley’s accusations to impotent rage and desperation as his fate is described to him in Miike-like detail by his teenage captor.
If there’s a flaw to mar the intense and suffocating atmosphere this stage-like film creates it would be in the script itself. At times the Hayley character becomes a one-note individual whose beyond her years demeanor seemed too cold and rehearsed. I really can’t put the blame for this on Ms. Page, but on the writer himself. It seems like Brian Nelson was trying too hard to add twist and turns on the story being told. He seems to enjoy overmuch his ability to tug back and forth on his audiences’ emotional investment in the film and the two characters. He actually pulls off the trick of making the sexual predator earn the audiences’ sympathy at what is about to be done to him. But instead of continuing on with that tangent and thus putting Hayley on a darker and more sinister light, Nelson backs off and pulls the audience back to wanting physical and emotional destruction to be visited on Jeff. Nelson used too much zig-zagging in making his script look more complicated than it ought to be. A rape-revenge film works best in its most simplest form.
The direction by David Slade (well-known as a music video director) was actually very subdued and deliberate in its pacing. Slade doesn’t fall back onto his music video experience with unnecessary quick-cut editing that’s plagued his music video director brethren. Slade managed to pull off a very Hitchcockian-style of directing by letting the stage and the actors speak for the scene without much bells and whistles to clutter things. There’s a few sequences where he lets the camera film things through one long, continuous take thus adding a sense of realism to the situation developing inside Jeff’s home.
The use of too much twists and turns in the script notwithstanding, Hard Candy is a tour de force piece of suspenseful filmmaking that borders on the great psychological horror films of the 70’s. In fact, the subject matter on the screen lends a sense of real horror to the film with its timely release and story. Any parent or adult who knows teenagers who use social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter would think hard about wanting to know more of what their kids are doing on the net. Hard Candy can be brutal at times and almost suffocating at others with little or no levity to break the tension. It’s a difficult film to sit through and probably won’t be the type of film for some, but just watching the performance by Ellen Page is worthy of the price of a viewing. The subject matter is very adult and straddles the line of what constitute a rated R film and one strictly for adults only. Hard Candy definitely falls on the latter.