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Hard Candy

Potentially Exploitative Subject Elevated by Tight Direction and Near-Stellar Acting

An Internet predator picks up a young, underage girl. They meet at a local cafe. She coyly plays with him, inviting herself back to his apartment. Her willful naiveté marks her as the predator's next victim, but what if the tables were turned, what if the wolf in the lair finds himself the victim rather than the victimizer? And what if, with the roles reversed, the predator finds himself powerless, at the mercy of a revenge-minded young woman? If the preceding scenario sounds like the latest offering from Japanese filmmaker/provocateur Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer), it's not. In fact, this scenario isn't Japanese at all, but American-made, indie film, Hard Candy.

Hard Candy, a single-set, two-character psychological/mystery thriller, is the collaborative result of first-time director, David Slade, TV-writer-turned-screenwriter, Brian Nelson, and producer, David Higgins, who first came up with the idea for the film, based on a news article he came across about underage Japanese prostitutes who lured unsuspecting men into compromising positions. Not surprisingly, the potentially exploitative, controversial subject matter meant that Nelson, Higgins, and Slade had to get independent financing in order to get Hard Candy made.

Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), a thirty-something fashion photographer, and Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), a wide-eyed, innocent-looking 14-year old high schooler, meet in an online chat room. Jeff has assiduously seduced Haley, but it's Haley who suggests meeting later that morning at a local coffeehouse. At their first meeting, Jeff treats Haley with a mixture of affection and condescension, but she doesn't seem to notice and buys into his "nice guy" persona. Haley, eager to check out Jeff's work (and possibly pose for him) suggests they go back to Jeff's house.

For Jeff, everything is going according to plan. He hopes to take advantage of her, plying her with alcohol. Jeff may be a pedophile, but is he also capable of violence or murder? Haley means to find out, using everything at her disposal to get Jeff to confess. But how far does Haley want to go? And who is Haley really? She's obviously not the innocent, sweet-natured teenager Jeff imagined when he seduced her online and at the cage.

It's best to stop there as Hard Candy ratchets up the suspense and tension. The film takes more than one violent turn, but depiction of violence (and gore) is left offscreen. As Hard Candy builds toward a seemingly inevitable denouement, male viewers will find themselves squirming in their seats and hiding their eyes under their jackets.

Setting aside objections related to the subject matter (which some viewers will find disturbing or exploitative), Hard Candy's narrative problems begin moments after Haley's plan culminates in a startling act of (implied) violence. The aftermath slips into formulaic reversal-double-reversal plot turns and stalker clichés. After a gradual buildup of tension, the revelations, and, of course, the powerful, visceral payoff, the last twenty/thirty minutes are a letdown, refusing to go where many extreme Asian horror films have gone before. Well before we get there, viewers will have to buy into the credibility-stretching idea of Haley as a master manipulator/genius and planner who's thought through every contingency. Some will, some won't. If you don't, everything else that follows will be next to impossible to accept.

These are minor issues or criticisms, given Brian Nelson's (mostly) skillful writing, David Slade's unobtrusive direction (which only veers into slasher-film clichés late in the film), and Patrick Wilson (The Phantom of the Opera, American Gothic) and Ellen Page's (Mouth to Mouth and the soon-to-be-released X-Men: Last Stand) highly watchable performances. As Jeff, Wilson generally avoids overacting or broad playing, instead creating a sympathetic, if flawed, character whose guilt or innocence remains unresolved until the final scene. As Haley, Ellen Page gives a sit-up-and-pay-attention, career-making performance. Page convincingly moves from starry-eyed, halting voiced innocent to calculating, vengeful sociopath. Long after Hard Candy has gathered dust on video store shelves, it'll be best remembered for Page's performance and the acting opportunities in indie and mainstream films that followed.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars