Hard Candy (Review)

by Shihang

I was on holiday the week before and was much too lazy to write anything last week. But then I felt what little writing skill I had ebbing away and felt compelled to write something, anything.

So this is a review of the 2005 film Hard Candy, starring Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson (here on Metacritic). I have been meaning to get this for a while, well just for Ellen Page, and I finally managed to find it for 5 pounds in Fopp near Covent Garden.

I think I navigated that excuse to digress about Singapore’s media stores reasonably well.

I thought Hard Candy was a great film, but one that traverses the moral landscape quite unguardedly, like an Iain Banks novel. It similarly makes little effort to do all the characterisation and moral messaging that some people seem to demand in a film. It is, however, a thought experiment fleshed out for us. In this sense, the gratuitousness seems more an advantage than a crippling flaw.

The film opens with an online chat between Thonggrrrl14 and Lensman319 which makes it quite clear that the dynamic between them is sexually charged. They meet up in a cafe. (The scene opens up with a rather gratuitous close up of a knife cutting through a cake. Make of that what you will.) Hayley Stark proves to be an intelligent and precocious 14 year old who reads med school texts and listens to Goldfrapp. The paedophile, Jeff, is a presentable, successful fashion photographer. They go to Jeff’s isolated house somewhere away from the main city, and there, Hayley drugs Jeff, and proceeds to torture him for about 75 minutes.

I'm still 19, so it is within the bounds of decency for me to note that Hayley looks prety darn fine.

First, the two leading actors turn in stellar performances, and it is frightening just how good Ellen Page is as a smart, psychotic dominatrix/torturer (the sexual aspect of their dynamic being the focus of a rather uncertain review by Roger Ebert). The writer successfully exploits the uniqueness of the character’s provenance, duly making her call a friend after tasering Jeff in the showers, contrasting the innocence and vivacity of her voice against the image of her psychologically tormenting this unbelieving mess of a man.

Here, some critics come in, a little nonplussed by the lack of direction of Page’s character. It is indeed true that it is difficult to fathom exactly why Hayley does what she does, although it is believable enough to me that she is on a generally anti-paedophile rampage, which is supported by the fact that she has forced Jeff’s accomplice, Aaron to suicide too. This may not be an extremely deep purpose, but it is certainly sensible. The confusion comes from the fact that she seems to be enjoying it too much for this to be pure vendetta. She is a sadist, pretending to castrate him and making him believe that she has put his testicles through a meat grinder. In one scene, he asks her desperately why she will not just kill him. She replies that she does not want him to get off too easily, which is a standard enough reply but one that seems to us to miss out her personal enjoyment of the torture process.

As a character in what is essentially high-grade mental porn, Hayley exceeds expectations. Neither are the scenes in any way really bland and indistinguishable as other critics allege. As a teenager, she really can work a man’s mind. How exquisite was the scene where she makes him watch her successfully figure out the keycode to his safe full of child porn? Or for that matter, the scene where she pretends to castrate him? Like him, we see her flounce around with two bloody balls in glasses, and at that moment, watching her decide whether to fling his severed “testicles” out for the dogs. Well, in any case, this is pretty damn good torture porn.

"Oh get a grip."

But, a central question posed of the film is whether it has any purpose, any unifying sort of line it is advancing. And I think not; it is precisely this sort of morality-based aesthetic sense that confounds attempts to enjoy the film. In the DVD extras, the director recalls that this was inspired by a story about Japanese schoolgirls who lure in and victimise middle-aged perverts. So this film is purely an exploration of the victim turned predator dynamic. The details in the film are far more enjoyable when seen as plays on this theme. For example, Hayley’s physical frailty (the scenes where Jeff succeeds in nearly overpowering and/or wounding her) compared to Jeff should not be some sort of comment on a paedophile’s inherent advantage over his victim. It is simply a good detail that enhances our enjoyment of the film’s portrayal of a certain dynamic.

In short, if you like your films fraught with cautionary tales and an optimism about the human condition, feel free to stay the heck away from this film. But if, like me, you have a certain fascination for the idea of a nymphet dominating a paedophile, this is an entertaining 100 minutes. The real strength of the film is how successfully it is advancing a vision, not how well it has crafted and delivered a creed on paedophilia.