In the ripped-from-the-headlines morality play Hard Candy, a resourceful eighth-grader who can tie a wicked knot and knows her way around a scalpel takes it upon herself to teach a suspected pedophile a thing or two about where he goes sticking his willie. And that’s putting it delicately. They meet-cute in cyberspace: He’s Jeff (Angels in America star Patrick Wilson), a 30-something photographer who goes by the screen name Lensman 319; she’s Hayley (Canadian actress Ellen Page), an emo-intellectual who calls herself Thonggrrl 14 and peppers her IMs with references to Zadie Smith and Elizabeth Wurtzel. Later, they meet for real, and it becomes clear that the makers of Hard Candy mean to toy provocatively with our preconceptions about sexual predators and their prey. Tall and trim and sportily attired like one of those anonymously all-American department-store models, Jeff hardly matches the image of the bedraggled, pasty-faced pervert drilled into us by the evening news. Then there’s Hayley, jailbait if ever there was, with her Jean Seberg haircut, come-hither stare and an attitude that says she may look like a mere girl, but she’s really 100 percent woman. And so they retire to Jeff’s hilltop abode, where they drink and flirt and listen to music, until Jeff starts to feel like somebody spiked the Kool-Aid, passes out and wakes up to find himself bound to an office chair with Hayley standing contentedly over him.
From there, Hard Candy descends into a game of verbal and psychological pingpong, as Hayley accuses Jeff of acting on his illicit desires with the underage models whose suggestive portraits line his walls — and of his complicity in the recent disappearance (and possible murder) of a local teen. All the while Jeff vehemently stands (or, rather, sits) his ground. The conceit of the film is that we never learn what, if anything, motivates Hayley, save for a desire to strike out in the name of all the world’s helpless victims of sex crimes. (Just a couple of weeks after Brick and its vision of a high-school Sam Spade, she’s like the junior-high version of The Equalizer.) Then, around the movie’s halfway point, the medical-reference guides come out, the latex gloves snap on and Hayley announces her intention to perform a bit of “preventative maintenance” by way of surgical re-education. As reinforced by the costuming of its petite avenging angel in a crimson-colored hoodie, Hard Candy, which was directed by David Slade from a script by Brian Nelson, is a modern spin on the Red Riding Hood story. Only in this version of the tale, instead of merely slaying the wolf, little Red cuts off his balls and then tries to talk him into killing himself.
Hard Candy calls to mind a whole back-catalog of torture-as-catharsis cinema, from Misery to Death and the Maiden (directed, appropriately enough, by Roman Polanski) — movies in which, when all else fails in the eternal communication battle between the sexes, the fairer sex turns to bondage. Some may even detect the finger-wagging moralism of Lars von Trier’s Dogville or Michael Haneke’s Funny Games at work, though what all those films contain that Hard Candy lacks is an essential human dimension — a sense that its characters are made of real flesh and blood, bound not by bungee cords but by the emotional and psychological weight of their actions. Yet like its eponymous confection, the movie gets lodged in your throat and sticks there for a while, admittedly more for its aggressive shock value than for anything it has to say about the greater implications of vigilante violence, the information superhighway’s rampant sex culture or the slipperiness of cyber identities. And it’s hard to shake the impression left by its two lead actors, who perform with terrifying conviction, no matter that they’re both given only one note to play. But the more things drag on, the more monotonous they become and, by the end, Hard Candy has devolved into a rather transparent game of one-upmanship in which Hayley and Jeff come across in almost equally repellent measure, their behaviors driven less by organic impulses than by their need to satisfy the script’s elaborate series of reversals and counter-reversals. They’ve become puppets in the filmmakers’ marionette theater. Or maybe pawns in their own game of chess. “It’s hard to find people to play chess with, so I got used to playing both sides of the board,” Nelson says in the movie’s press notes. Judging by the evidence here, he’s still doing it.
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HARD CANDY | Directed by DAVID SLADE | Written by BRIAN NELSON | Produced by DAVID W. HIGGINS, RICHARD HUTTON and MICHAEL CALDWELL | Released by Lions Gate Films | At ArcLight