Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review: Hard Candy

If the media teaches us anything about faceless Internet contact, it’s that evil is most certainly afoot.

Hard Candy (2005, trailer) starts with a computer display of a flirtatious instant-message exchange, apparently between a teenage girl and an older man:


They agree to meet at a coffee shop, where our fear is confirmed: ‘Thonggrrrl’ is Haley (Ellen Page), a naïve fourteen-year old girl wearing a Red Riding Hood sweater, and ‘Lensman’ is Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a gravely-voiced man in his thirties whose face is often cast in shadow.

Haley is trusting and provocative, and Jeff coaxes her into coming to visit his house. The camera glances at a Missing Persons notice displaying the picture of another teenage girl.

The two drink screwdrivers at the house, and as she becomes inebriated and relaxed, Jeff prepares to take photos of her. Just when the unassuming Haley seems to be doomed, the tables turn: Jeff collapses and wakes up tied to a chair, drugged, and at the mercy of a not-so-innocent Haley.

From now on, the movie is a high-concept, dialogue-based thriller, during which Jeff struggles to escape while Haley searches the house for evidence to incriminate him of pedophilia.

My Take

Technically, I think that Hard Candy is well made. The set of Jeff’s photographer pad is (impossibly) stylish and spacious, and the walls are flushed with menacing reds. As tensions rise the colors de-saturate, which creates a bleak, washed-out atmosphere.

The music is negligible, but probably for the best, since a score might imply a sense of presence that would be dissonant with the film’s small cast and theme of confinement.

The cinematography is crisp and dynamic: our introduction to innocent Haley is a gentle swoop that closes in on her cheery face like a peek-a-boo; later with the change in tone the camera winds and creeps like a snake through Jeff’s (again impossibly lavish) bungalow.

Unfortunately, the few scenes with fast action use the ‘jiggle the camera around like a maniac’ filming approach. I’ve never really understood this style - sure, the frantic juddering implies urgency, but I imagine that if I were in such situations, fear would make me more deliberate and focused in my movements – especially if, as in this case, I didn’t know where the danger would be coming from. Besides, wouldn’t a slower, steadier camera be scarier?

Hold still, I can barely see the horror.

Anyway, the writing and performances in the opening are strong; Jeff subtly gains Haley’s trust with friendliness, flattery and a non-threatening demeanor; Haley in turn acts like a precocious child, but is very forward with Jeff – which seems odd at the time, but makes sense later, when we learn that she’s actually the one doing the seducing.

After the first scene I feel that the actors’ performances are good, but only inasmuch as the screenplay is. Although Jeff is appropriately anxious and frightened throughout, Haley’s character is some kind of two-dimensional angel of retribution who carries out Old Testament-style punishments.

She speaks of the pain and trauma Jeff’s actions inflict on young girls as if she were an adult authority on the subject, instead of one of the potential victims. This is an incredibly hard-to-believe concept for an ostensibly fourteen-year-old character.

My favorite scene is when a suspicious neighbor knocks on the door, and Haley stumbles and stutters her way through an explanation that she is the niece of Jeff, who cannot answer the door because he is out. She fails to sound remotely plausible, and actually seems way over her head in nasty business she shouldn’t be in. Here I believe that she really is a fourteen-year-old, and that the movie is finally putting her insane actions into (a) perspective.

Actually, never mind, that’s only within this one scene.

The dialogue gets surprisingly bad, especially Haley’s:

‘I asked my friend if she’d help castrate a guy, but she made these sounds like I’d asked her to swallow worms or something…I wonder why they teach girl scouts things like camping and selling cookies, because this is what’s really useful.’

I can tell that lines like these (and their blasé delivery) are meant to provoke phrases such as ‘darkly funny’, ‘feminist’, 'edgy', or perhaps even ‘badass’ in feedback, but to me they sound silly and only make me think ‘this girl is a psychopath.’ An unrealistic one, too - I’m not too convinced by these threats coming from this tiny girl.

Be afraid?

Despite there being little cause for drama, baffling amounts of it appear at times; Haley runs an extensive gamut of emotions, from anger to sadness to condescending mockery. In one bizarre scene, she appears to be devastated to find out a certain piece of information which we later learn she had known the whole time.

In another confusing emotional moment, Jeff tearfully confesses a traumatic childhood experience completely out of the blue, when he really, really should be paying attention to what’s going on in the scene.

The movie attempts to be ambiguous as to who is really the bad guy - that’s right, Pedo-Jeff is sort of shown to be the victim.

In one scene where he escapes his ropes, we see his suspenseful advance towards freedom from his perspective; i.e. Haley is the off-screen monster who could appear at any time - and we are frightened on Jeff’s behalf. This and the fact that Jeff is the helpless, pleading prisoner the whole time weirdly makes the tone of the film sympathetic to the pedophile, instead of the 'blameless' girl/cartoon villain.

As the film goes on, Jeff escapes and gets knocked out more times than a Warner Bros. cartoon character, the girl on the Missing Persons notice is awkwardly and hastily shoved back in as a suddenly important plot point, and the story generally devolves into a mess of inconsistencies.

Haley also develops superhuman strength, as demonstrated by a sequence where Jeff regains consciousness to find himself somehow tied up and suspended from the ceiling by a series of ropes.

Out of the many faults I found in Hard Candy, I think the biggest one is the decision to make the antagonist/anti-hero so young. Maybe the story would have made more sense to me if Jeff had been captured by an adult woman, perhaps as a form of revenge for the trauma that another pedophile had once done her.

This way, the Haley character would actually have reason to be impassioned and self-righteous in her actions, and she would also be more threatening (because fourteen-year-olds aren’t scary).

What if this hypothetical adult-Haley lured him into a trap by posing as a young girl online? What if Jeff was lured while posing as a teenager in the same way? The creepy possibilities are endless!


Further Reading

For more about Internet deception, see my post about Catfish.

For more about the horrors of technology, see my post about Black Mirror.

Screengrabs: Hard Candy was produced by Vulcan Productions, in association with Launchpad Productions. The UK DVD was distributed by Lionsgate.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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