If you like torture, both physical and psychological, then you should really check out Hard Candy. Not that Hard Candy is the only place to find torture as entertainment these days; in general, television, movies and the federal government like to present the message that torture is a Good Thing. (Well, not the whole federal government, just a few rogue branches of it, like the executive and the judiciary.) However, unlike most pro-torture movies and cabinet members, Hard Candy is stylish and smart with dialogue that's both real and effectively manipulative. Or at least it starts that way. The film begins with an online chat between Thongrrrl14 and Lensman319. Lensman is in his 30s, whereas Thongrrrl says she's 14. You would think that would quash any chance of romance between them, and yet, you'd be wrong. Somehow, they heroically overcome their age difference and agree to meet in a public place in order to discuss their underwear, and what might lurk beneath it.
Thus, there's a long and very disturbing sequence where Thongrrrl and Lensman (now using their "RL" names of Hayley and Jeff) hang out in a coffee shop and present the creepy and vile emotion that Woody Allen calls "love."
The dialogue here is painfully real. Hayley sounds like a girl, or like a girl who's trying to sound like girl, and Jeff sounds like the world's smoothest pervert. Slowly, Hayley manipulates Jeff into taking her to his apartment.
Yes, the 14-year-old is manipulating the adult. As the film progresses, it becomes much clearer that this is the case, and it adds to the overall creepiness of the movie. Which is to say, it's not just that this is an exploration of a creepy character, but that the script itself makes some horrifyingly creepy moves. Hayley calls all the shots and comes off as more disturbed than Jeff the pedophile. She does everything she can to seduce him and shows herself to be smarter and more capable than he is. It's as though screenwriter Brian Nelson wanted to justify the pedophile's usual excuse: She came on to him!
Although it isn't quite that simple. Hayley is not only in charge; she's also deranged. In fact, by the end, it's hard to find anyone to root for or any satisfying outcome, since both of the main characters are criminals: Jeff and Hayley wind up being almost exactly equally evil, though Jeff does come off as a good bit more sympathetic, if no less vile.
The story, though, could have presented Jeff as completely unsympathetic by focusing on different elements; it's just that the parts you see make you feel bad for him, whereas the parts you don't see make him about as lovable as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It's these structural elements of Hard Candy that make it most interesting, and where it ultimately falls down. The movie is what Ingmar Bergman called "a chamber film," or a film where there are fewer than five characters and only one or two sets. In fact, there are only four speaking parts in the film, and two of those are minor, and the vast majority of the film takes place in Jeff's house. Add to that Hard Candy's emphasis on sexual perversion, and it's a lot like a Bergman film, if Bergman had made The Passion of the Christ with a pedophile in the place of Jesus.
It also has a Bergman-like attention to light and tone. Cinematographer Jo Willems and director David Slade play around with fields of solid color, matching a blue wall to a blue rope to the blue of Jeff's eyes with Crayola-like precision.
They also increase the tension with an unnervingly frequent use of extreme close-ups. Both Ellen Page, who plays Hayley, and Patrick Wilson, who plays Jeff, do well in these shots. They have interesting and attractive faces and are capable of extreme emotional range without ever seeming artificial.
Slade does smartly pull back for action shots, and there are no confusing cuts or unclear events. Technically, Hard Candy is tremendously precise.
The film suffers from two major flaws, though. First, it starts to repeat itself about 50 minutes in. Basically, it just runs out of story and then does variants of the same cat-and-mouse sequence three times in a row.
Second, it's really grotesque. Just like The Passion of the Christ went overboard with the torture, Hard Candy can't seem to get enough of Hayley's sadism, and heads into a more psychological realm of the same sort of pornography as Mel Gibson's little flesh-fest.
These two problems ruined the film for me. But I was impressed by a lot of the directing, cinematography and dialogue, and I think that Slade, Willems and Nelson, all relative newcomers to the big screen, might make excellent films in the future. Hard Candy, though, for all its skill, winds up being just a very well-realized remake of I Spit on Your Grave.