Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hard Candy (2005)



Pedophilia seems to be all the rage these days. One can't go more than a few days into a news cycle without some new child abduction, rape or murder dominating the headlines. All the usual suspects show up; the political opportunists and cable TV pundits all thumping their chests to pass even more new laws to protect "The Children" (tm). Certainly, opportunities for predators to exploit children has increased in these days of Internet chat-rooms and Myspace. In return, the opportunities for reality-TV shows to exploit the predators in return have also increased.

While I'm far from an apologist for adult men having sex with underage girls, shows like To Catch A Predator always leave a greasy taste in my mouth. I can't help but have a twinge of sympathy for the men lured to the house (most of whom seem to come off as just average-schmoes with really poor decision making) while Chris Hansen proceeds to shame them on national television. My sympathy is always tempered by the fact that these guys really are creeps (just listen to Mr. Hansen read back some of their transcripts), and the realization that it's easy for anyone to turn on the waterworks and say "It will never happen again" once they're caught red handed. Who knows how many young girls they had had sex with before Perverted Justice caught up with them.

In a sense, watching Hard Candy is like watching a fictionalized version of To Catch A Predator, only with much higher stakes. The movie starts with a racy online chat between Thonggrrrl14 and Lensman319 (with the cinematic concessions of making the fonts huge and the responses typed much too fast for real life, so as not to lose the pace). After a short conversation, the two decide to meet for the first time at a coffeeshop called Nighthawk's (so named, perhaps, because "Chicken Hawk's" might have been too obvious).

Thonggrrl14 is a 14 year-old girl named Haley (Ellen Page) and Lensman319 is a 32 year-old photographer named Jeff (Patrick Wilson). They bond over coffee and tiramisu in a conversation that would not be out of place in a mainstream romantic comedy were it not for the ages of the characters involved. It seems almost natural that Haley, who is intelligent beyond her years, would be attracted to the attentions of Jeff, who exudes genuine charm rather than being just a sweaty pervert. Though I question whether a grown man would meet so publicly with an obviously underage girl he's trying to seduce, the scene is an almost perfect balance of charm and queasiness.

However, Hard Candy is no Lolita, and the tone of the film quickly shifts when Jeff invites Haley to his home/photography studio. Jeff works as a professional child photographer, and admits to having an affair with a fifteen year old. After plying Haley with screwdrivers, Haley slips him some drugs and the second act begins where a 14 year-old girl manages to keep a grown, 170 pound man hostage for hours with the almost supernatural omnipresence of a villian in an 80's slasher flick. The film pays so little attention to this contrivance that I don't think I will either.

Apparently, Haley had been trapping Jeff all along, conversing with him with different chat accounts, doing background checks etc. Haley is convinced that Jeff has something to do with the disappearance of another young girl named Donna Mauer. For every denial of wrongdoing Jeff makes, Haley has a scathing rebuttal. In their discussions of vengeance, often Jeff's voice is the more human of the two. There's always a seed of doubt that Jeff is really guilty (at least until the end when the film sheds its intriguing moral ambiguity and finally names who the good guy is).

Hard Candy straddles the line between horror and thriller. While very little blood is shown, the violence that's implied is excrutiating (particularly if you're male). Like Saw, Hard Candy gets sadistic mileage out in forcing their characters into making choices where both outcomes are pretty horrific. While the film's shocks are more mental than gory, Hard Candy feels drawn from the same cloth as cringe-cinema classics like Audition.

Shot mostly in close-ups to hide the cheapness of the sets, Hard Candy attempts to look stylish with ample, but unobtrusive color-correcting used effectively throughout. Thankfully, music video director David Slade doesn't try cover up the script's stagebound feel by choking everything up with flashy cuts and camera tricks. As with many high concept stories, while the premise is intruiging, there's not quite enough there to carry a whole movie. Things like Sandra Oh's pointless scene as a nosy neighbor seem to be added just to pad the film's running time. And as I stated earlier, the film wraps things up just a bit too neatly. Hard Candy is just not the right movie for an anticlimactic, crowd pleasing one-liner.

Hard Candy is a two-character story, and both actors do a stellar job. Patrick Wilson does a fine job of making you guess whether Jeff is the victim or villain. How ever you feel about him morally, it's hard not to empathize with his survival instinct. But ultimately, the film is carried by newcomer Ellen Page. Her boyish, plain looks and girl-acting-mature charm contrasts intriguingly against the sociopathic ferociousness of her performance. If she can act this way at age 17 (her age when the film was shot) then we should expect great things from this actress in the future.

As a thriller, Hard Candy is an effective vehicle to jolt the system, featuring an engaging script, performances that are a revelation, and lean, unobtrusive direction. Thematically, the film suffers from wanting to be both a complex dissection of the nature of morality and a cut-and-dried revenge movie. The film has it's problems, but your not really aware of them as your watching it. It would be a perfect, slightly brainier addition to a horror film night.

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