Thursday, December 24, 2009

Movie Review: Hard Candy (2006) - 3 1/2 stars

David Slade's Hard Candy is a psychological thriller of the first order. This is a film that takes a normally predictable issue in the movies, pedophilia, and tells it in a way I've never seen before. Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson take a lot of risks with this film, and while some of the story development may not be as good as it could have been, the remarkable performances more than make up for it. It's one of the most uncomfortable films I can remember, but if you can stomach the content, this is a ride well worth taking. 

The film opens up in a chat room between a 14-year-old girl named Hayley (Ellen Page) and a 32-year-old man named Jeff (Patrick Wilson). They agree to meet at a nearby coffee shop later that day. Once they get to talking, it is clear that Hayley is a very mature woman. She speaks like a poet, she has books in her purse, and she has an almost hypnotic voice. Things seem to be going well, and they agree to go back to Jeff's house.

We learn that Jeff is a photographer; in fact, that his home is his studio. There are pictures all around the house of beautiful women. When Hayley asks Jeff is he's had relations with any of the women he's shot, he becomes very restless. Not only that, but Hayley seems to become very pushy. She continues to question him, although he is clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. Not long after, he passes out, and wakes up tied to a chair. Hayley is standing over him. 

Most of this film is the banter between Hayley and Jeff, and not only is it expertly-written, but these actors do an incredible job with the material. This is perhaps the best Ellen Page performance that a lot of people have not seen. Her memorable, Oscar-nominated turn in Juno is the one she is known for right now, but this performance is worthy of the same recognition. Her screen presence is something else. I still can't believe that she was 17 when this film was shot; it's a remarkable transformation. I don't know if there's any role she can't play. 

On the other side, Patrick Wilson is brilliant as the suspected pedophile. This guy is one of the more underrated actors working today, and if you are not familiar with him, this is a good place to start. He plays the innocent card so well that we begin to sympathize with him and question whether or not this guy is really as sick as this young girl says he is. 

The scenario of this film is thought-provoking to say the least. This seemingly sick pedophile, with pictures of women all over his house, is supposed to be a guy we are repulsed by. But seeing him tied up in that chair, completely helpless, consistently denying the girl's allegations, we actually start to believe in him and side with him. We begin to sympathize with the same guy who goes in and out of teenage chat rooms all day. 

Hayley, a girl we should be feeling sorry for, begins to look like the repulsive one. Men like Jeff should be taught a lesson, but the way Hayley goes about it is sickening. Make no mistake, there is not much graphic, visible violence in this film, but this is one heck of a disturber. I love the fact that this entire film covers only one afternoon. It's not about their previous chat sessions or the repercussions of what ends up happening, it's simply about the singular event of this girl's psychological torture. 

Rarely can a film manage to be suspenseful relying on two characters and a razor-thin excuse for an outside plot, but Slade pulls it off. It is a gripping thriller that I would even compare Rob Reiner's Misery. Both films have a disturbed woman dominating a helpless man, and the performances of Page and Wilson are just as good as those of James Caan and Kathy Bates.

I didn't look at Hard Candy as a mystery. When I reflect back upon this film, I don't think about how the story ended, but rather the ride it took me on along the way. This is such an undeniably mesmerizing picture. There will surely be viewers turned off by the material, but that's rather the point. It takes an uncomfortable subject and presents it in an even more uncomfortable way than we're used to. I applaud the filmmakers and the performers. 


Darwin said...

I wish "Hard Candy" cracked the characters more in depth. Jeff and Hayley are so shady that they become so distant. I could not root for or sympathize with them. Even if they are not likable characters, I was cheering for a good fight. Alas, the battle is mostly one-sided. Not quite the well-balanced thriller I expected. It's more of a horror movie ("Misery" is a pretty good comparison).

But I totally agree with you on the acting and the disturbing quality of the film. This is a risky movie and it takes some balls to watch it.

Nigel Maruva Chikukwa said...

This still stands as one of the few ruthless performances from Ellen.

It will forever be a testimony of her growing talent.

Danny King said...

@ Darwin: That's an interesting take, and I think it's one of the things that makes this such an thought-provoking film. At the start of the film, you think this guy's a creep, but as the film develops, you begin to be repulsed by Page's character. What it ends up lacking in sympathy is made up for in originality and psychological effect.

@ Nigel: No disagreement here. What an astoundingly commanding performance at such a young age.

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