Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with MiraJeff's incredibly spoilerific look at HARD CANDY. He goes into great detail, so if you haven't seen the movie and want to... beware the spoilers. That said, I agree whole-heartedly with MiraJeff on this one. HARD CANDY's a pretty damn good flick. Give it a view if it plays in a theater near you. Wasn't that poetic? Here's the man and his spoilers! Enjoy!
Greetings AICN, MiraJeff here with a look at Hard Candy, and no, I don’t mean the kind my dad sells (shameless plug for the man who has paid for my college tuition: www.candymansales.com come on, how often do movie titles give me this chance). I’m talking about the mucho disturbing psychological thriller from commercial and music video director David Slade and playwright Brian Nelson. If you haven’t heard anything about Hard Candy yet then don’t start now. Seriously, you’re doing yourself a disservice by reading this review. However, I suspect many of you AICN fans do know about the film so by all means, please continue to read on, especially if Hard Candy isn’t coming to a theater near you because of its limited release, which could expand if word-of-mouth is strong enough.
On the surface Hard Candy is a two-characters-in-one-location film about a 14 year-old girl named Hayley (Ellen Page) who visits the apartment of a 32 year-old photographer named Jeff (Patrick Wilson). Their relationship begins innocently enough with some suggestive email correspondence, and we’re thrust into their anonymous online relationship just as Thonggrrl finally suggests a meeting with Lensman319. The two go out for coffee, flirtations progress, and before we know it, Jeff is kissing Hayley’s feet in the parking lot on their way back to his ultramodern home/studio. After Jeff graciously opens his luxury car’s passenger door for Hayley, there is a moment where she is alone in the car as Jeff walks around to the driver’s side. Page’s blank expression speaks volumes. She’s positively sinister.
Jeff’s chic house, which is also his ‘studio/portfolio,’ has two distinctly different color palettes, as the stylishly cold grays, silvers and blues contrast its disarmingly playful pink walls, most of which are covered with Jeff’s photographs of half-naked young models. The two listen to some music (Goldfrapp), and share a drink, while Jeff treats her like the mature young adult that she acts like, rather than the impressionable 14 year-old girl that she is. The tables begin to turn when Hayley smartly refuses a drink that she didn’t see mixed, and later imparts those words of wisdom to an all-too-trusting Jeff. Of course, this is all a game and before long, we’re not sure who is the predator and who is the prey. Until Jeff passes out, drugged, while Hayley dances in her training bra. Then everything is illuminated. Young Hayley is not quite the girl she claims to be. In fact, she thinks Goldfrapp sucks (shocker)! As Hayley puts it, “play time is over. Now it’s time to wake up,” and when Jeff does, his pedophile in denial can’t understand why this nice girl would do this to him? How could she mislead him? And over the course of their interaction, Jeff sure as shit earns our sympathies, because as a guy, it’s damn near impossible not to feel bad for him, even though his guilt is never really in doubt, although the film tries to make you question this. But seriously, Jeff isn’t stupid. He’s drinking with a 14 year-old girl in his house. As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably guilty of whatever Hayley thinks he did.
So while Jeff is out cold, Hayley takes the liberty of ransacking Jeff’s house, searching every closet and drawer for anything that might be remotely embarrassing or incriminating. “Nothing’s yours when you invite a teenager into your home,” she says. Hayley finds it especially odd that she can’t find any porn in a straight guy’s house, and suspects that his stroke shots might be the modeling photos decorating his walls. Nevertheless, this honor student smells something fishy and sets out to find his juicy cubby hole. When she finally discovers Jeff’s well-hidden safe, she guesses his all-too-predictable password to unlock his darkest most disgusting secrets, which establish a connection between Jeff and Hayley’s missing classmate Donna. When Jeff admits that he was seduced by this teenage temptress, Hayley cries, “it’s so easy to blame a kid.” Looking over Jeff’s secret stash of photos of underage nymphs, Hayley can only utter, “This is officially sick.” As Hayley describes herself, she might know how to imitate a woman, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to do the things a woman does. When Jeff offers a response, she asks, “What was that I heard? Maybe it was music, maybe it was bullshit.” Satisfied she has the kiddie porn proof she needs, Hayley proceeds to up the ante physically, and this is where there film becomes a guy’s worst nightmare and turns its attention to some good old-fashioned amateur surgery, namely, a nauseating castration.
As a bag of ice sits on his exposed genitals, Jeff finds that his arms and legs are tied to an operating table straight out of Ikea. Slade frames his sweaty, whiskered face so that it fills the bottom half of the screen, with only Jeff’s stubbly chin poking above the screen’s imaginary equator. Hayley emerges wearing hospital scrubs and latex gloves, the better to cut your balls off with, my dear, and reveals her plan to castrate him to exact revenge for Donna’s kidnapper, who police describe as being a bright, powerful loner, “definitely a repeat offender.” At first Jeff tries to keep calm, thinking she’s only kidding, but inevitably, he starts freaking out. The hard part is listening to Hayley talk about how simple it will be to “pull off,” because castration is “one of the easiest surgeries to perform.” Then, like a young Annie Wilkes, she warns Jeff to stop wiggling or else she’ll spray bleach in his mouth. Wilson takes his performance to another level in this scene, as Jeff’s breathing becomes labored and he starts to panic. His fear is so realistic, the scene becomes difficult to watch, but whether or not we think he pulls off a bizarrely affecting monologue to save his balls is irrelevant, because the merciless Hayley isn’t convinced by Jeff’s vivid memory of being held above a hot stove and hearing his tears sizzle beneath him. She admits that she never should have teased him into thinking there was a way out of this. “We gotta get this show on the road,” she says, and proceeds to prepare her first incision. “A teen doesn’t do this,” he tells her, though Hayley fires back on target with “I’ve seen your idea of what teens should do.” But when Jeff resorts to asking, “Does your mom know you cut off men’s balls,” I had to laugh. He tries his best under the circumstances to give a persuasive speech, warning her, perhaps from experience, that on her wedding night, whether Hayley likes it or not, she will remember doing this. “The things you do wrong, they haunt you,” he tells her with a knowing tone of voice. Of course, his cries for mercy fall on deaf ears and Hayley’s mind seems quite made up. She counters, “Aw, you don’t want me to castrate you for my own benefit. I’m touched.” Eventually he admits to crossing the line, but that isn’t enough for Hayley. “Didn’t Polanski just win an Oscar” she asks, making us question our own society’s values. And as Hayley pours vodka on Jeff’s crotch to anesthetize him, he begs her to “stop, don’t do that to yourself.” Again, she counters, asking him to imagine someone saying the same thing to him as he downloaded pictures of naked little girls. “Why don’t you just kill me,” he asks. “Isn’t that what you want?” And of course, revenge is much more complicated than that. Death would be getting off lightly in Jeff’s case. She wants him to suffer, physically and mentally. Thus, before she begins, Hayley turns on a video camera connected to a television so that Jeff can watch his own castration, an interesting idea that Slade doesn’t really explore. Reminded me a lot of Tom Sizemore’s sadistic rapist in Strange Days.
There will be a lot of talk about the castration scene, and if you don’t want to know spoilers, skip this paragraph. Still here? One more chance… Okay the castration scene is one of the most disturbing, nauseating things I’ve ever seen on screen, even though I didn’t really see it. During this scene, the camera pans back and forth across an ominous red wall between Jeff and Hayley, who is busy working between his legs. They don’t show anything graphic and like Psycho, there is very little blood. Remember, we never saw the knife pierce Marion in the shower, we only heard sound effects and Bernard Hermann’s score. The violence in Hard Candy is mostly implied, and instead, we’re treated to the audio of the “surgery” which quite frankly, was more than enough. When it’s finally over and Jeff lies there numb with shock, Nelson’s sick sense of humor rears its ugly head as Hayley makes light of the situation, wondering how far Jeff’s boys can bounce. She would throw them in the backyard but Jeff is a conservationist, and she wouldn’t want any animals choking on them. Ever the helpful citizen, Hayley wipes the sweat off Jeff’s forehead as she recommends a Eunuchs website so he doesn’t have to go through this alone. “Why are you being so nice” he asks. “You’re pitiful.” And later, she asks us to imagine a Girl Scouts merit badge for castration, wondering why girl scouts are taught useless things like camping and cookies. Finally, she decides to put Jeff’s testicles in the garbage disposal, when she jokes that they must not be brass. But as soon as she leaves to go type Jeff’s suicide email to Janelle (proving she really has him by the balls), Jeff breaks free of his restraints and discovers that in fact, he is “all there.” Hayley was bluffing all along. In fact, much of the violence that occurs thereafter is begat by Hayley having leverage on Jeff and leaving his fate in his hands, which do manage to get control of a gun at one point, however Hayley begins suffocating Jeff in Saran Wrap and he drops it. Later, she subdues him by excessively wielding a stun gun on him, and strings his head into a noose before nearly hanging him in the kitchen. In case you’re wondering, , Hayley escapes the ordeal with nary a scratch except for one cut on her forehead.
In the end, a movie is only as good as its performances, and let me tell you something, this Ellen Page is going to be a star. She’s scary good, and this film gives her a meaty role that she really sinks her teeth into. She lets it all hang out. I’m glad X3 is coming on the heels of this performance, so people remember to pay to attention to Kitty Pryde. Hayley is a bit too histrionic at times, a bit too over-the-top and too smart for her own age, but for me, it worked because she’s playing a game with Jeff. She’s toying with him. We know right off the bat something isn’t quite right about her, but Jeff’s tunnel-vision doesn’t allow him to see it. He sees what he wants. He thinks he is so irresistible, that of course this young girl wants to give herself to him. After all, as Hayley undresses in the coffee shop bathroom to tease Jeff, she is a little girl in the women’s room. And with her red sweatshirt, she resembles Little Red Riding Hood pretending to be the bait stumbling into the Big Bad Wolf’s trap and planting a breadcrumb trail of sexually suggestive comments to play along with the Wolf’s act. One thing she mentions that might actually be true- “4 out of 5 doctors agree. I’m insane.” Meanwhile Patrick Wilson pulls off a near miracle by making us feel bad for Jeff. Few actors can get away with that while playing a pedophile, Anthony Perkins to name one, so Wilson deserves some credit for acting under some heavy, duty pressure. I don’t care how good an actor you are, when a teenage girl is ready to cut your balls off, you start to sweat. Wilson is perfect as the sleazy, educated, perverted opportunist. Jeff is a monster who preys on the weak, and the movie is even more disturbing because no one, besides Hayley of course, would ever suspect Jeff as a child molester. The only complaint I have about Jeff is that he seemed to go a bit over the top at the end, and started talking like he was Patrick Bateman’s best friend. After Hayley turns on music and starts slamming doors to get his attention, he goes batshit on us. “You’re all just like Janelle, you’re driving me crazy,” he screams. “I can’t stand the head games! You’re right this is me. This is who I am. Thank you for helping me finally see it.” You see what I mean?
All that said, Hard Candy does have its problems. I realize that after a film like Sideways, Sandra Oh can attach her name to a movie and secure a certain amount of financing for it. She only appears in two scenes but her role as Jeff’s nose neighbor, Judy Tokuda, is so unnecessary and paper-thin that it isn’t worthy of being a distraction from the tension. Wilson and Page were doing so well on their own; did we really need the Grey’s Anatomy lady stopping by to sell Girl Scout Cookies? I realize that she’s of minor importance to the story because she’s Jeff’s only hope, having seen Hayley wandering around on Jeff’s roof earlier, but really… Also, the ending is a total cop-out. Jeff is given a very specific choice- he can answer for his crimes and have his dream girl Janelle find out about his extracurricular activities, or he can put an end to his own misery. I won’t tell you what he decides, but why he decides it doesn’t really make any sense, especially considering the existing possibility that Hayley might say what she winds up saying the very last line of the film. The final showdown takes place on the roof where Jeff finds himself in a lose-lose situation. He’s armed with a knife, but Hayley has his gun. And even if he did get away, what would he tell the police? A teenager tried to cut my balls off? Jeff doesn’t even know Hayley’s real name, and in a neat twist, it turns out that her entire identity has been a carefully constructed lie. When Jeff asks incredulously, “Who are you,” Hayley responds by saying “every girl you every watched, touched, screwed, and killed. When Jeff cracks, his final defense falls on deaf ears, and we learn that Hayley’s revenge plan is much bigger than we thought. The inherent problem with Hard Candy’s finale is that it concerns a character’s internal struggle. And while Nelson and Slade do a good job of putting us in Jeff’s mind, that doesn’t mean we can understand all of his decisions, and in the end, the film lacks insight into Jeff’s obsession with Janelle which would have illuminated the ending. Slade makes it a point of telling us that Janelle is special, but like Hayley asks, “Why is she allowed to keep her clothes on?” Instead of giving any sort of answer, the film leaves its audience scratching their heads, our brains still trying to make sense of last-minute revelations. As a charming photographer, Jeff’s personality puts models at ease. He encourages models to bare their souls for the camera. It’s too bad we don’t get to hear Jeff bare his.
Some will accuse Hard Candy of being too slow or theatrical, because most of it is just two people talking. But there is so much going on beneath the surface of their lies, and so much weight given to everything they say, we literally hang on every word. Hard Candy is a film that makes us question our values. Some scenes suffer from hyper-editing, but the jarring camerawork and claustrophobic, one-set location keeps us on the edge of our seats, like Misery for the younger, hipper crowd. A reverse take on Audition, if you will. Slade shoots the first act in tight close-ups of his actors’ faces. Perhaps he wants us to get to know them, to really look in their eyes and read their faces, so we can tell when they are lying later. Whatever his intention, Hard Candy is a darkly atmospheric mind-fuck, a psychological thriller of the most disturbing kind. It is messed-up in the best way possible. One last thing before I go; I’d like to thank the publicists at Dan Klores Communications who helped arrange for my friend, producer Juan Castro to come to the screening with me. He turned me on (not like that!) to the script for Hard Candy which was every bit as raw and devastating as the film turned out to be. Put me in the “excited” column for Nelson and Slade’s follow-up, the vampires-in-Alaska movie 30 Days of Night. That’ll do it for me folks. Hope I didn’t say too much, but hey, you read it all. ‘Til next time, this is MiraJeff signing off…