Finally! A movie with balls. 2005 still feels like 5 years ago to me (especially as it was the beginning of my life in Salem), so it’s weird to see pre-Juno Ellen Page before she started looking uncomfortable in movies in which she starred.
Thriller rather than horror, the first 20 minutes of Hard Candy are uncomfortable viewing. After some flirtatious chat online, photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) meets 14 year-old Hayley (Page in an impossibly childlike pixie haircut) in a coffee shop for chocolate cake. Even without the chat content, there’s an acute sense of sleazy dread that mires these scenes. Jeff sits really close to Hayley, they talk about music and size each other up like adults on the pull would. He buys her a t-shirt, and she coyly flashes him while trying it on, and he doesn’t flinch the way a normal adult would; he’s flattered by it, and so is she, only we know he should know better. And then we get to watch what we think is going to play out, something that we know full well happens in real life on a regular basis, and it’s just cloyingly, suffocatingly unsettling (with claustrophobic wide-angles to boot).
After some more flirting, screwdrivers and talk about all things sex and photography-related, Jeff’s sudden blackout reveals that Hayley has drugged him, and, suspecting that he may be a pervert who raped and murdered a local girl, is planning to just cut the bollocks and let her know what she thinks about all this.
I thought that Truth or Dare was a small film; this is even tinier. There are only two other characters with spoken lines, and for almost the entirety of the film it’s just Page vs. Wilson, and in one modest-sized bungalow. There’s not much else to it other than Hayley’s psychological torture and Jeff’s pathetic attempts to talk her out of it. Because much of this is dialogue based (and much of Hayley’s dialogue is written and acted in a completely believable way for a 14 year-old), the movie’s robbed of the theatrical energy it might have had if it had been a stage play.
Not that its celluloid form is without its own style. In the opening credits I noticed a “Digital Colorist”, something I’m (pretty sure?) I haven’t seen in any other movie. Wikipedia tells me that the movie was filmed with the brightness turned up to ludicrous speed, then coloured/contrasted down in post-production to get a high-detail look even in low-light scenes. And hues were deliberately chosen to match Hayley’s mood (warm for anger, cool for calm, etc.).
It’s a short movie, well-paced and brilliantly-acted by Page, who is at her best when chillingly flitting among fake-naivete, calculated vigilante, and maybe-out-of-her-depth-kid persona. Patrick Wilson now gives me conflicting feelings for twisting his usual charisma into successfully playing such a despicable type of subhuman scum.
Available on Netflix (UK), a word of warning about the subtitles (I watched late at night) – some of them are jumbled in order (a top line of text appears at the bottom and vice versa), but it might have just been a glitch for me.
Like any filmwatcher, I tend to trawl IMDb’s message boards to read other people’s thoughts. Owing to the number of apologists who were “team Jeff” and thought that feminist revenge fantasies “degrade women”, you might want to stay off that forum. While I don’t exactly condone Hayley’s actions (what rational person would?), I’m not going to feel terribly sorry for a character who has a history of abusing his position of power to collect photographs so obscene that “this is what they make those federal laws for”.
There are some moments of heavy-handed, anti-rape-culture dialogue that will fall on the same deaf ears that they always do, and so the brief mention it gets irked me because they could have done more with it. Instead, the movie’s cat-and-mouse chase with its elaborate twists and set-ups makes Hayley looks more like a sicko than potential murdering, voyeuristic, grooming, serial-paedophile Jeff. That can’t be a good thing for what I thought this movie was trying to achieve.