A film review by Craig J. Koban

RANK: # 8


2006, R, 103 mins.

Jeff Kohlver: Patrick Wilson / Hayley Stark: Ellen Page / Judy Tokuda: Sandra Oh / Janelle Rogers: Jennifer Holmes / Nighthawks clerk: Gilbert John /

Directed by David Slade /  Written by Brian Nelson

HARD CANDY is one of the most disturbing films that I have ever seen.  The fact that its story revolves around a slimy, manipulative pedophile and a highly resourceful 14-year-old girl that tortures and attempts to castrate him makes it all the more terrifying. 

Very rarely in my filmgoing life have I felt compelled to watch a film through my fingers, barely being able to witness what was about to transpire on screen next.  HARD CANDY elicited that reaction on more than one occasion.  I found myself looking away and recoiling during many of the film's scenes.  The film is undeniably chilling and distressing.  Yet, it is to its ultimate credit that it can instill in its audiences a palpable and unwholesomely realistic sense of dread. 

HARD CANDY is incredibly straining on our collective willingness to engage emotionally in its subject matter.  It’s a real endurance test, to say the least.  Honestly, it concerns two relative elements that do not normally make for feel good entertainment – child molesters and torture.  Yet, it would be painfully easy to label the film as exploitative, nor is it a paint-by-numbers DEATH WISH-inspired revenge flick.  HARD CANDY is deplorable, yet it is never gratuitously violent and gory, nor does it have any actual sex or nudity in it  (it is rated R for “pervasive disturbing sexual content and language). 

The film is a pure exercise in polarizing the viewer; a tense, traumatic, and mind-numbingly scary psychological horror film that does something that a majority of other gross, dead teenager horror films utterly fail to do – it creates incredible tension and an overall sense of terror.  HARD CANDY is many things; it’s deplorable, brutal, and uncompromising to watch, but it is also incredibly gripping, ingeniously written, and it contains two of the finest – and most thankless - performances of 2006.

Despite its content, the movie  also works by tantalizing us on some larger moral issues.  Clearly, the film - in no way shape or form - begs us to sympathize with a man that rapes children.  However, on the other token, I am not altogether sure whether or not it endorses sadomasochistic torture of these pedophiles either.  Surely, it places the pedophilic character in the correct context.  In this film’s case, he is a sly and smooth at manipulating young minds, but when the tables are turned on him, he becomes an utterly pathetic human piece of garbage. 

However, does his deplorable actions predicate any harsh vigilante justice being perpetrated on him?  Is this justified or acceptable?   We are not talking about beating him up a little and turning him over to the cops.  No, we are talking about drugging him, gagging him, tying him up, spaying household cleansers in his mouth, and finally attempting to remove his manhood without the assistance of a local anesthetic.  Oh, and this is all done by a girl barely in her teens.  To say that HARD CANDY could turn people off in a big, big way is the broadest of understatements.

Perhaps this is why the film emerges as one of 2006’s most transfixing and challenging films.  It never asks us to sympathize with either the rapist or his captor.  Yes, we hate the pedophile for what he is, but how much more humane is his teenage torturer?   At first - as she slowly but surely starts to turn the tables on him - we gleefully cheer her on in her successful battle of comeuppance.  Obviously, this character facilitates the fantasies of many people.  Who would not want to tie up a vicious sex offender and lay a hurting on him?

However, the young girl’s actions become increasingly dark and – let’s face it – borderline sociopathic.  Her general attitude about tormenting her victim starts off as being justified and acceptable, but the more the film lurches forward and the more her actions grow more sadistic, I found myself rooting less for her.  Mind you, I think that the man should pay, but should he pay in the manner that this little girl envisions?

To its credit, HARD CANDY never promises to provide for squeaky-clean payoffs, nor does it give us characters that are easily digestible.  Neither of the two are particularly likeable.  The man is, for lack of a better word, a degenerate slimball that should be thrown in jail for life.  The girl is – in an odd way – equally disturbed.  The thought of the actions of the pedophile are disgusting, but it’s almost unbearable to watch the girl embark on her merciless and heartless scheme of torturing him in ways that any man watching the film would easily cringe at.  The film gets under your skin like few I’ve seen. 

HARD CANDY also has time to comment of an alarming trend – chat room dating (more specifically, on-line predators).  Anyone that has watched DATELINE lately knows the danger of these Internet pedophiles.  Maybe young Hayley (Ellen Page) saw this investigative news show and came up with her plan.  As the film opens we see her engage in one of those sexually laced online chat room conversations.  She chats up a storm with her "buddy" and they play a seemingly innocent game of Internet cat and mouse.  Soon, both agree that it is time to meet and so they do at a local dinner.  Sounds like a good plan, right?.  The guy, in her mind, won’t do anything to her in public, right?

She meets up with Jeff (Patrick Wilson) and it is fraught with awkwardness.  Perhaps this is because she is a 14-year-old student and he is a 32-year-old photographer.  Hayley comes across as shy and naïve, whereas Jeff emerges as kind of confident, calculating, and…well…creepy.  They talk a lot - about artists, photography, books, etc. – but it soon grows apparent that this shadowy  man will be trying to convince her to come home with him so she can be the next model in his next very personal shoot.

What happens next is kind of startling.  It is Hayley that actually suggests to Jeff that he take her back to his place.  Oddly enough, he begrudgingly agrees.  When they get there they settle in and engage in more meaningless conversations.  Soon, Jeff starts to move in on his prey a bit more and offers her a drink.  Clearly, Hayley is a very smart cookie. “I know better than to take a drink mixed by a strange man,” she tells him.  Jeff subsequently backs off and lets her make the drinks for them.  Big mistake.  In no time, Jeff begins to grow groggy and intoxicated and quickly passes out.  When he awakens he finds himself tied up from head to foot in a chair.

Hayley, it appears, now has the upper hand.  She has been able to infer from their online chats that he is a pedophile, but at this point in the film there is – interestingly – very little actual evidence to support that.  The film is able to command our early interest in the character by allowing us to question the nature of Jeff.  Is he really a pedophile or is he just a really, really stupid and naïve man that is now the victim of bad circumstance?  The film plays around with the true motives of his character, but when the very resourceful Hayley discovers his secret stash of child porn, there seems like little doubt that Jeff is a very, very bad person.  Within no time, Hayley begins to embark on her vengeful mission to ensure that he will never harm another girl – or human being – ever again.

He, of course, sheepishly begs for her to listen to him.  “I’m innocent,” he frequently bellows out.  The evidence, unfortunately, is not on his side, and he knows it.  What we don’t know, however, is whether or not he is guilty of the death of a recent young girl in town.  There is no doubt that he has victimized children, but even while he is tied up and pleading to be let go, we are not altogether sure If he is a murderer.  Hayley sure seems to think so. 

She certainly has plotted her revenge scheme well.  He is restrained, which puts her in charge.  If he screams for help, she sprays his mouth with Lysol and cleaning detergents.  She also has a police tazer to zap him if he gets too unruly.  Then she reveals a shocking admission.  She announces that she is going to “fix” Jeff once and for all.  She prepares him by placing an ice pack on his genitals.  “This will numb you for the procedure," she matter-of-factly tells him.  He begins to sob uncontrollably and scream for mercy.  She is deaf to his pleas.  She lets him cry.  He continues to swear up and down that he is not whom she thinks he is.  She grows more cold and ruthless.  In her mind, what she is going to do is “for the best.”  When she puts on the surgeon’s gown and some rubber gloves, opens up a medical textbook, and grabs a scrapple, I found it hard to keep me eyes on the screen.

HARD CANDY is utterly enthralling based in the interplay between the two characters.  The whole movie essentially involves the two of them in Jeff’s house.  The film – as stated – is not violent, per se.  It is scary for the implied sensation of menace and violence.  The tension the film creates would have made Hitchcock proud.  Obviously, there is tension in knowing if and when Hayley will go ahead with “fixing” Jeff for good.  The film is unmistakably brutal in build-up and execution. 

On the other hand, there is real tension in the possibility of Jeff escaping being bound up.  If he does, he is easily the bigger of the two and - if he is a killer like Hayley thinks - would surely kill her.  The whole film peels away the fabrics of the characters to the point we get more and more information about them.  Yet, we never really know whether Jeff killed the young girl, or why Hayley really has the motivation at all to go ahead with her diabolical scheme.  The film does an exemplary job of keeping you guessing and truly frightening you with what may come next.

The film’s sense of morality with its characters is far from black and white.  Hell, it’s not even grey.  HARD CANDY is anti-pedophile; Jeff, when faced with the prospect of being mutilated, is reduced down to a blubbering simpleton.  He essentially is despicable because of the things he has done, but when he begs for his manhood and life, we don’t feel sorry for him, we pity him.  Nonetheless, it is very hard to bond with Hayley either.  Obviously, Jeff must have had a great amount of sick and disgusting pleasure in tormenting his victims, but in the same manner, Hayley gets the same kind of nauseating euphoria from tormenting Jeff.  It is hard to argue that Jeff really had it coming to him.  He surely has to pay for his crimes.  I am just not sure that the type of graphic and brutal justice that Hayley has in mind for him is what is right.  In many ways, Hayley – a would-be victim of Jeff – becomes the most frightening and domineering figure in the entire film.  It's a really stunning role reversal.

The performances in HARD CANDY are astounding.  Patrick Wilson makes a career turn playing one of the trickiest roles of the year in Jeff.  The emotional spectrum he has to follow is amazingly board.  He has to play cunning, cool, and manipulative and latter play pathetic and vulnerable.  Wilson is an actor I have admired in films (like the underrated ALAMO from 2004, where he played William Travis).  Here is performance is remarkably solid for playing both the predator and a victim.  Ellen Page (whom you may recall seeing as Kitty Pryde in the last X-MEN film) is a complete revelation as Hayley.  Her work here reminds me of Natalie Portman’s similar performance in 1994’s THE PROFESSIONAL where she too demonstrated a range and emotional maturity far beyond her actual years.  Seeing that Hayley is one of the more difficult and polarizing characters in any film of recent memory, it makes Page’s assured, confident, and gutsy performance all the more incredible.  There is not one moment where she is on screen where her dominant presence is not felt.  This is the break out performance of 2006.  She has the inconceivable task of balancing justified victim with grotesque tormentor. 

HARD CANDY is not for the faint of heart.  It’s sickening, appalling, and represents humanity on the lowest ends of the totem pole.  It takes a subject matter and two characters in particular that don’t normally invite our curiosity and excitement.  The film is cruel and heartless with its characters and kind of leaves you feeling empty inside with its soulless story.  Yet – having said all of that – HARD CANDY is a virtuoso work of tension and does a brilliant job of slowly developing its characters and story to the point where the events truly grow terrifying.  The film is exceedingly hard to handle and pushes buttons that many of us never want pushed (this is not a film meant for repeat viewings).  As much as one can shun the film’s subject matter, there is no denying the sheer, consummate skill that was utilized in presenting it.  HARD CANDY has remarkable performances, a wonderfully constructed narrative, and it unambiguously challenges its viewers with its subversiveness.  For being a work that is exemplary in execution and appalling in nature, HARD CANDY is a revolting, squirm-inducing Indie masterpiece.

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