Blu-ray Review: Hard Candy (2005)

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Moving her flirtation with thirty-two year old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) from the keyboard to a local coffee house, fourteen year old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) wears a Little Red Riding Hood style red hoodie jacket to meet a man whom audiences fear may indeed be a big bad wolf.

Yet fairy tale symbolism aside, unlike the endless parade of interchangeable bimbos we typically encounter in horror films whose job it is to get naked before getting dead, we're inclined to give Hayley the benefit of the doubt since there's just something about her knowing confidence and the ease with which she controls the situation that surprises Jeff right along with us.

Whether it's in the way she describes taking college courses or teases the older man with whom she's chatted online by subtly pushing buttons while at the same time feeling him out personality-wise before eventually inviting herself to his place under the guise of wanting to hear a bootleg concert, we're refreshingly unable to categorize Hayley as either Little Red or Lolita.

Needless to say, however, we're incredibly uneasy about the whole set-up all the same, as well-versed in online stranger danger embodied on evening news programs like Dateline NBC's “To Catch a Predator” as we are in horror movie character constructs.

But to director David Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson's immense credit, even after Hard Candy reverses the traditional power struggle by making it apparent that Hayley is the big bad wolf in disguise who's taken it upon herself to investigate her date's pedophile pretensions, we still remain on edge.

Similarly, we're uncertain what direction the film will take, if Jeff will get the upper hand, and just why exactly Hayley has chosen to become a cross between a more sadistic version of Charles Bronson in Death Wish and a harder hitting send-up of Nancy Drew.

Like A Clockwork Orange, Hard Candy is visceral, outrageous and destined for cult status in the way that it asks us to alternately judge, empathize and then decipher the actions both characters take that may reveal who they really are since we're only presented with the bare minimum of need-to-know information from the start.

And given the escalation of violence as Hayley drugs and ties up her prey, we realize fairly quickly that everything our mysterious antihero has said is now suspect just like wondering what exactly is posturing and practiced on Jeff's side as he denies her allegations, evades questions, manipulates and tries to talk his way out of the situation.

In fact, part of Hard Candy's problem is that once we get past the ingenious first act, which goes against our expectations, instead of a conversational game of Neil LaBute like stagey he said, she said cat-and-mouse, Slade's thriller turns into a torture porn standoff that may do more harm than good in the overall revenge fantasy of trying to get Jeff to face the music.

Namely, since anyone will say anything under such intense duress, his side of the conversation becomes less believable. And in the same turn, by making Page's plucky renegade go to such extremely violent lengths to get Jeff to confess his possible part in a local crime, the filmmakers make us lose sympathy for our twisted torturer during an extended sequence that goes on for so long that it nearly derails the entire film and transfers our emotions to Jeff.

Yet from purposely maintaining a minuscule budget to cutting down some of the tension with startling bursts of humor and employing clever cut-aways to make us “feel” the violence rather than see it a la Reservoir Dogs, as much as the claustrophobic film could've used outside input, the filmmakers ensured that their vision would not be compromised from start to finish.

But despite Page's bravura pre-Juno (read: before typecasting) performance and an intelligent way to tackle the material, eventually Candy gets so extreme that the otherwise suspenseful film begins to threaten our suspension of disbelief with a laughably bad, dubious encounter with neighbor Sandra Oh and too many matters of convenience for Hayley.

A flawed yet fascinating work guaranteed to inspire conversation by jolting us out of our comfort zone to confront something topical handled in a way that we've never seen before, Candy's presentation of a psychotic vigilante is even more painfully provocative in high definition.

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 FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.