David Slade's 'Hard Candy' (2005)

Ellen Page in 'Hard Candy'
I worry a little for people who might pick up Hard Candy because they see Ellen Page's name on the cover, because this film is about as far from her star-making turn in indie darling Juno that one can get. Director David Slade's debut feature film is an intense, disturbing psychological thriller of the highest caliber. Brian Nelson's script does not shy away from addressing a controversial topic in a controversial manner, leaving plenty of room for questions and ambiguity.

Having been chatting online for a few weeks, 14-year-old Hayley Stark meets thirtysomething photographer Jeff Kohlver at a local coffee shop to finally see each other face-to-face. The pair returns to Jeff's house, where Jeff will presumably follow through on the pedophilic tendencies their online and coffeehouse conversations suggest. But before he can attempt anything Hayley reveals that she has her own agenda. The entirety of the film plays out as an extended cat-and-mouse pursuit, with Hayley and Jeff slipping in and out of the roles of predator and prey.

Hard Candy reminds me not just a little bit of Richard Linklater's excellent 2001 film Tape. Linklater's film is another psychological suspense that involves a protracted dialogue between a small number of characters in a confined space. Where the two films diverge is their treatment of characters. Tape is very much a character study. At the end of the film, the audience feels as though it knows Vince, Jon, and even Amy a little better than when the film began. The events of the film create a catharsis intended to change the characters in some tangible way. However, when Hard Candy's credits roll, I don't know that we know Hayley or Jeff any better. In fact, in Hayley's case one could argue that the audience knows even less about her. The characters go through the film's events for the sake of going through them. Of course, Nelson explores the emotional journey that parallels the physical one, but ultimately Hard Candy is a purely visceral experience that exposes raw human emotions not often seen in cinema. 'Hard Candy' posterSlade and Nelson give enough hints to cover the holes one might poke into the plot, but they by no means fill them, which ultimately doesn't really matter. If you're wrapped up in discerning character motivation or consumed with dissecting the probability of some of the film's physicality, you are watching the wrong movie.

Of course, the success of a film this intimate and character-driven rests on the shoulders of the leading actors. Patrick Wilson is a musical theater veteran who has recently beefed up his film resume with appearances in movies such as The Phantom of the Opera, Evening, and Little Children. He plays Jeff with a perfect combination of menace, callousness, and vulnerability that keeps the audience at a distance sometimes and draws them in unexpectedly at others. Though undeniably a physically taxing shoot for both him and Page, Wilson takes the brunt of the physical discomfort, filming the majority of the movie bound in some way. At one point, Jeff's hands appear blue, deprived of blood by the binds at his wrists. No make-up was used for that scene — Wilson's hands had really turned that color. He passed out from overexertion at one point when filming Jeff's attempts to free himself from the ropes. Wilson also very effectively changes the quality of his voice throughout the course of the film, going deeper and more gravelly as Jeff is forced into darker territory and finally speaking in an almost feral growl when he emerges at his darkest.

Her charming performance as the titular character in the much-hyped, very likable Juno may have garnered her an Oscar nomination, but Ellen Page's work in this film affirms that she belongs on that short list. Of course, Jeff needed to be played adeptly by an accomplished actor, but had Hayley been played by an actress of lesser talents than Page the film would not have worked. As one of the producers has said, Hard Candy's plot rests essentially on a gimmick: a potential victim of a pedophile turns the tables on her would-be aggressor and victimizes him instead. If the filmmakers can't sell the gimmick, then they can't sell the film. Page sells the gimmick in spades. Some critics of the film say that a 14-year-old wouldn't be capable of planning and executing what Hayley does. But, again, it doesn't really matter if any 14-year-old could perpetrate Hayley's actions. It only really matters that the audience believes Hayley could do it. Not once throughout the entire film did I doubt that Hayley had control of the situation, and only an actress of Page's depth and intelligence could have created that sense of dominance over a man more than twice her size. Here Page uses the worldliness and sardonic wit that made Juno so appealing to create a truly cold and calculating anti-hero. I also love that by chance Page had something of a pixie cut during filming, because she had shaved her head for a previous role. Combined with her slight build, the effect lends her something of an androgynous appearance. Given that Hayley posits herself as a potential "every victim" of molestation, her almost sexless physical presence underscores that suggestion powerfully.

While ably assisted by Wilson and Page's dynamic performances, Slade offers some fine direction and some lovely photography with the help of cinematographer Jo Willems. Slade mirrors the emotional journey of the characters and creates dramatic tension through effective use of focus and color correction. He films the actors against a lot of solid backgrounds, often solid blocks of color. The effect is an interesting one, sometimes creating a sterile environment devoid of emotion or feeling, sometimes underscoring Hayley's black-and-white worldview, sometimes creating a false sense of warmth. Jeff's house is chillingly uncluttered, free of moral and ethical boundaries that would inhibit the "justice" that Hayley serves.

As I watched the film, I began to consider that the writer or director might be Asian. Though neither are, Hard Candy certainly resembles much of the cinema that has come to the United States in the past decade from Asia, particularly Korea and Japan. Along with the work of directors like Quentin Tarantino and Mel Gibson, this body of work uses violence as a vehicle to explore the psychologies of extremely violent people, which in the best case scenario somehow humanizes them. However, in the case of these other films I have always felt as though the violence was either gratuitous or manipulative, designed to illicit a certain emotional response. With Hard Candy, I didn't feel as though anyone associated with the film really cared if I felt one way or the other about the characters as along as I found the story compelling. Perhaps because I'm a woman, I connected with Hayley for most of the film, but I was allowed — not encouraged but allowed — to sympathize with Jeff when I felt so impelled. And as for gratuitousness, for an arguably quite violent film very little violence and even less blood actually makes it onto the final print. During the most violent scene, all of the violence occurs off-screen and, ultimately, is only suggested rather than committed.

Hard Candy is certainly not a film for everyone, but it provides a rewarding film experience for those looking for challenging psychological exploration of two compelling characters.
Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson in 'Hard Candy'