A minimalist duel in the tradition of Misery or Oleanna, 2005 Sundance hit Hard Candy is a resourceful film, a well-acted film and in many ways a tremendously interesting film, but ultimately also a confounding, disappointing and profoundly silly and false film. Written by Brian Nelson and directed with low-fi panache by former-journalist-turned-music-video-helmer David Slade in his feature debut, the film is a spare, streamlined two-hander that assays, within the confines of the psychological thriller genre, the tables-turned games between an online sexual predator and his adolescent prey.
Jeff Kohlver (The Phantom of the Opera’s Patrick Wilson) is a photographer in his early 30s. After striking up a chat-room relationship with young teenager Hayley Stark (an utterly fantastic Ellen Page), they meet at a local coffee shop. The checklist of phony seduction is fully satisfied — Jeff compliments Haley’s beyond-her-years intelligence, bonds over their shared musical taste, and buys her a token gift in the form of a T-shirt — and they soon repair to his house. There, stilted and elliptical flirtation continues and the alcohol is brought out. In a twist, though, it’s Hayley who spikes a drink. When Jeff comes to, he’s been tied up. In calm but calculated fashion, Hayley proceeds to explain her belief that Jeff is connected to the disappearance of another local girl. She first sets out on a quest to find child pornography in Jeff’s abode and, after a while, reveals her plan to actually castrate him.
Somewhat like High Tension, which took the stalking horror genre and wrapped it around a proto-feminist twist, Hard Candy is similarly a modern re-imagining of the cold-blooded vengeance pics of Charles Bronson’s heyday. (Interestingly, neither of these two pictures are written or directed by women, which, to me, says as much about their overt commercial motivations as anything else.) Shot by Jo Willems (London) and constructed by Slade as a veritable expo of primary colors and uncluttered sterility, Hard Candy is an excellent idea for a short film, and Slade has a great touch with the queasy-sleaze underpinnings that inform the movie. Still, you can see the laboriousness of its construction and feel its wheels turning in its stretch to feature-length.
Like Saw, Hard Candy takes delight in the macabre machinations of its “victims,” although here, of course, that word is further spring-loaded, and on the surface certainly more deserved. In alternating between the quippy and brusque, though, Hard Candy never locates a satisfying, believable tone. That the castration scene is prolonged to willfully torturous lengths could be forgiven (or indeed, embraced as being part of the point) were the film much more inspired in its interplay. Unfortunately, much of the natural tension it accrues over the first three-fifths of its running time dissipates via a series of repetitive, merry-go-round exchanges between Hayley and Jeff, and a nonsensical ending that just unravels wildly, bad-stock dialogue and everything. It’s here that you realize Hard Candy doesn’t really have much to say, and is in fact nothing more than a rote, shrewdly packaged vengeance tale wrapped up in profundity’s clothing.To me, that’s almost a deal-breaker. What recommends Hard Candy, though, is Page’s ferociously charged performance. She holds the movie tightly and completely in her small hands. If it betrays her, she never betrays it. (Lions Gate, R, 99 mins.)