Format: DVD from NetFlex on laptop.
I try not to drop a lot of f-bombs on this website, but there are times when it becomes absolutely necessary. Hard Candy is fucking hardcore. This film is an emotional rollercoaster, one that plays with all of the expectations of the audience. We sympathize in with each of the two main characters in different ways and at different times. This is a film that works through a series of levels, a cat and mouse and cat game that builds relentlessly until it finally concludes. I can’t stress this enough—if you haven’t seen Hard Candy, it’s a film that will stay with you for a very long time.
We start with an internet conversation between an as-yet unknown man and woman who have been flirting with each other. They agree to meet, and it becomes evident that the woman is actually a girl, needing her sister to drop her off at their meeting place. So we know from the opening moments of the film that we’re dealing with pederasty at the very least. In this opening conversation, things are already uncomfortable.
And we go to the meeting, and this is anything but a meet-cute. Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) is a 14-year-old girl, precocious beyond her years. She claims to be auditing medical classes and reading books far beyond her years. The man in the equation is Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), 18 years her senior and a professional photographer. The flirting at the beginning of the film is very real, which puts Jeff in a very precarious position going in. He claims to not want to do anything but wait four years for her to become legal. But she convinces him to take her to his house to hear a concert bootleg. And again, we’re uncomfortable.
Once at the house, Hayley demonstrates that she is precocious in more ways than one. She seems oddly naïve—she’s gone to a secluded house with a man 18 years older than she is, but refuses to take a drink from him. Instead, she mixes drinks for the two of them, and he doesn’t pay heed to her advice—she’s drugged his drink. And now shit gets real. It’s soon clear that while Jeff has been stalking Hayley in chat rooms, Hayley has been stalking him just as hard. Since he’s an internet predator, she is preying on him.
At this point, I’m left in a difficult position with Hard Candy. There’s so much more here that is worth going into with this movie. A part of me really wants to explore exactly where Hard Candy goes, because it digs really deep into a lot of psychological issues that are worth discussing. On the other hand, Hard Candy is not a film to have spoiled at all. This is a film that needs to be fully experienced as cold as possible. There’s a reason that I haven’t described the film further in than about 25 minutes.
So let’s talk about what we can talk about here. Hard Candy works primarily on the two performances. Ellen Page is absolutely gripping in her role. This is a case where it works that the actor playing the role is a little older than the role she is playing. Page was 18 when she did this movie, but she passes for 14 easily. Even better, she passes for a precocious 14 with incredible easy. She has the right mix of feigned sophistication and naivety that makes Hayley completely believable. I tend to like Ellen Page in general, but I think this is probably Page’s best performance. It’s certainly her most layered and most nuanced.
Patrick Wilson is equally good here. He has to be both terrible and sympathetic at the same time. We have to hate him for what he is and still find places in the film where we can be sympathetic to him. Wilson manages this incredibly difficult feat extremely well. He’s a loathsome human being, making all of the same excuses for his behavior and yet there are moments when we have real concern for what might happen to him.
It’s also worth noting the performance of director David Slade as well. This was Slade’s first feature-length film and it’s a hell of a debut. There are moments of jagged film, frames removed to indicate speed of motion that are a little vertigo inducing but are still effective. Much of the success of Slade’s direction comes from using the limited environment of Jeff’s house very effectively. Well, that, and he gets these two performances from his cast.
This is one of the best thrillers made in this century. If you’re prepared to be made supremely uncomfortable from start to finish, this is a ride unlike any other you’ve been on.
Why to watch Hard Candy: It’s fucking hardcore.
Why not to watch: You’ll be uncomfortable for 104 minutes in just about every way you can be made uncomfortable.