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Tag Team Review: Hard Candy

Travis Newton isn’t really a blogger per se, but until recently, he was a fellow correspondent at CHUD.Com. He was the co-author of my very first tag team review over at CHUD last year, which I still consider to be one of the greatest milestones in my time as a film critic. I of course thought to ask Travis if there were any films he’d like for us to review together as part of this project, and quite luckily, he suggested one that’s been on my to-watch list for quite a while.

Hard Candy is a two-hander between Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson, two of my favorite underrated talents. The script came from Brian Nelson, under the direction of David Slade, both of whom made their feature debuts with this picture. It seemed like the start of two promising careers after this film came out to rave reviews. But then they both worked together on 30 Days of Night, then Slade went to work on The Twilight Saga: Eclipse while Nelson wrote the script for M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil, and now they’re both back to working on television.

It may come as no surprise to you that screenwriter Brian Nelson was hired on this project for his talent as a playwright. Hard Candy is a micro-scale thriller with only a handful of shooting locations, but most of the action takes place in a single home. It’d make a killer play, but the way Slade creates images is so crucial to the way this story is told. Seeing Hard Candy through his lens makes for a sensory experience that would be impossible to match on stage. Slade is a technical master — he storyboarded the whole film himself, not only to design his shot compositions, but to specify the exact lenses he needed to achieve his desired depths of field. The specificity of his vision is unreal.

That does make a lot of sense, now that you mention it. The movie very successfully combines the best of both media: the intimacy and immediacy of a stage play with the audio/visual trickery of a film. But there will be time later to discuss the brilliance of the writing and direction on display here.

Page plays the 14-year-old Hayley Stark, who strikes up an online relationship with 30-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Wilson). And the first time we see Hayley, she’s wearing a bright red hoodie in a blatant bit of fairy tale symbolism. Though come to think of it, the visuals make incredible use of color throughout the film. Some colors are washed out so that others pop off the screen. Some shots are put together with a solid color background, with striking results. The camera movements are solid as well, as shaky cam and steady shots are all used with deft judgment.

Huge props are due to cinematographer Jo Willems, who would later work on the similarly gorgeous Limitless and three of the four Hunger Games films. I should also note the involvement of Jean-Clement Soret, here credited as the “digital colorist.” I assume that he’s at least partly responsible for how a scene will suddenly shift from warmer hues to darker tones. Again, the imagery is blunt as a ball-peen hammer, but it’s very effective.

Digital colorist Jean-Clement Soret also worked on 28 Days Later, and his surgically precise control of color is apparent in that film, too. Digital color grading has evolved very rapidly in the ten years since Hard Candy‘s release, partially to accommodate new digital formats that have become the industry standards for film and television. The use of color in the film is never subtle: the walls of Jeff’s bedroom are a fleshy, creepy pink. His hands are plum purple when he’s tied up later in the film. “Carpe… omnius,” says Hayley, clinking her day-glo orange cocktail against Jeff’s. The shadows on her smiling face suddenly deepen to black. “Take it all.”

I didn’t even think about the deeper symbolism of the color itself, but that’s a fascinating train of thought. Really, every individual frame is its own work of art, worthy to be analyzed and discussed at tremendous length and depth. If there’s a higher compliment to be paid for a film’s visuals, tell me and I’ll use it.

As for the story itself… shit, where do I even begin? This is one of those films that’s tricky to talk about in depth, partly because so much of it is tied up in spoilers and partly because it’s tough to adequately describe how batshit insane things get. Suffice to say that at the start of the movie, Hayley and Jeff finally meet in person after three weeks of chatting online. They go back to his place, she spikes his drink, and he wakes up tied to a chair. From there, things go downhill, and then keep going all the way to hell.

And along the road to hell, we’re never quite sure with whom our loyalties should lie. Hayley’s motivation is rooted in justice, but she’s sadistic and unstable. Jeff is clearly creepy from the start — upon first meeting Haley in a coffee shop, he wipes chocolate ganache from her lip with his finger and licks it off. He’s handsome and charming, and it only makes him more frightening. He’s clearly so taken with Haley that he doesn’t even attempt to hide it in public. But when the tables turn, Patrick Wilson so convincingly plays Jeff’s fear that he imparts a pathos. You may find yourself wondering if this guy really deserves Haley’s wrath.

Basically put, Hayley thinks that Jeff is a pedophile, accusing him of everything from shooting underage porn to the rape and murder of teenage girls. So she’s taken it upon herself to exact vigilante justice. In the other corner, Jeff swears up and down that he’s a legitimate photographer who never crossed any legal boundaries with any of his models. Yet there are some things about Jeff that just don’t add up.

For example, Jeff has often worked with plenty of environmental groups, and he’s taken shots of outdoor vistas. Yet he keeps those beautiful landscapes in a drawer somewhere while his house — even his bedroom! — is adorned with huge prints of artfully posed little girls. There’s also the fact that Jeff doesn’t seem to have any kind of porn in his house. Legal or otherwise. Seriously, when’s the last time you’ve heard of a guy (especially single and living alone, as Jeff is) who didn’t keep a porn stash anywhere in his house or his computer?

All of that said, none of that is necessarily proof of a crime. Sure, Jeff may be guilty of something, but is he guilty of being a pedophile? Or a murderer? Or even an accessory to either of those crimes? We really only have Hayley’s word to go on, and it’s hard to trust Hayley when we really don’t know anything about her for sure.

Oh, except that we know Jeff spent three freaking weeks courting Hayley over a chat room. That’s a bit of a red flag there.

So Jeff has a few secrets and probably some hidden urges that he really needs to work out, and Hayley… well, Hayley’s a straight-up goddamn psychopath, there’s no other way to say it. Both of these characters are in very dire need of psychiatric care, and we’re given fewer and fewer reasons to sympathize with them as the film continues. Which means that this is one of those situations in which we can watch two characters completely destroy each other, content with the knowledge that they’ll both get what’s coming to them.

Except that’s not exactly what happens. I don’t want to spoil the ending too badly, but I will say that one of the characters is eventually favored over the other at the last minute, and that was a very bad move.

I’m not so sure I agree. I think removing the ambiguity was a great way to make things worse for our characters. The stakes are raised, and there’s greater potential for drama. As great of an ending as John Carpenter’s The Thing has, I don’t think Hard Candy would have the impact it needed if it didn’t take the film’s setup to a definitive conclusion. The film really makes a promise to us in its opening scenes: you’ll want to see this to its shocking end.

I totally agree that one had to triumph over the other at some point. But I submit that the film should never have definitively answered the question of whether or not Jeff was really guilty, or whether Hayley really was merely a psychopath operating under falsely paranoid delusions. While the ending does leave the audience to wonder whether Hayley’s actions are justified, that question is so much more interesting to me when we don’t even know for sure that any crime was committed at all.

Oh, and another nitpick: There’s one point in which Hayley climbs onto Jeff’s roof for absolutely no reason, eventually leading to a brief moment of blatantly false tension. That whole plot dogleg was entirely stupid.

To provide a counterpoint — I like the fact that we see Haley briefly operate with no apparent motivation. There’s mystery in that moment, and it foreshadows the film’s climax. I assume you’re talking about a brief scene with another minor character that could have ended up on the cutting room floor, but it’s another great way to make things worse for Haley. It adds another small layer to the top of an increasingly fragile house of cards.

You’re certainly not wrong. But on top of everything else that was happening at the time, I’d say it was hardly necessary.

The writing is otherwise outstanding. I loved the dialogue between Jeff and Hayley, watching as they called each other out on their bullshit and exploited loopholes in their arguments.

There are some killer one-liners and great monologues in the film; scenes when Brian Nelson’s wonderful dialogue coincides with powerful line deliveries. It’s a talky movie, but with dialogue and structure this good, they can talk all they want.

Of course, it must also be mentioned that the movie was bold enough to go into some really dark places. I mean, pedophilia is a nasty subject, so of course any movie exploring that issue will have an obligation to go dark. But oh, gentle reader, this movie puts Jeff through some ordeals that are truly unspeakable. There are things in this movie that the filmmakers were too squeamish to actually include in the frame, and I’m personally quite thankful for that.

Hard Candy has one of the most gut-churning scenes of its decade, and this was the decade in which the Saw and Hostel franchises took off. Slade is not a squeamish filmmaker, and his work on NBC’s “Hannibal” is far gorier than anything shown or alluded to in Hard Candy. What really works about Hard Candy‘s violence is that it’s intensely personal, and far more about the implications of violence than about the acts themselves. That doesn’t stop the acts themselves from being completely horrifying.

The two characters hurt each other in every possible way a human being could be hurt, and that’s really what makes this plot such a hellish journey for them. Every physical attack is carried out with deathly precision and agonizing patience. Every mental attack is well-reasoned and carefully explained. The characters even attack each other spiritually, jabbing their dirty fingers into the deepest recesses of each others’ souls in search of new demons to dredge up. And of course, there’s also Hayley’s treatment of Jeff’s home, which is a whole ‘nother kind of terrible invasion.

I could go forever heaping praise onto Slade and Nelson, but it’s really Page and Wilson who make this film work so well. Page does a masterful job from start to finish, transitioning effortlessly from an innocent ingenue to a stone-cold monster. But the real trick is that even when she’s saying and doing all these awful things, we never lose sight of the fact that this character is only 14, or at least pretending to be underage. Moreover, there’s always a righteous edge to her constant anger against the alleged pedophile, and that keeps the character just barely sympathetic enough that we can stay invested in what she does and what happens to her.

As for Wilson, he’s a fantastic actor who was given a blessing of a role. Here’s a character who seems like a charming and perfectly decent person, but it’s tough to say if he really is on the level or if he’s come up with all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify his sins. And of course all those torture scenes demand a level of intensity that he delivers in spades.

Based on what I’ve seen of the critical reception for Hard Candy, there are two distinctly different reactions to watching the film. On the one hand are the viewers who will only see all the pain and torture on display, to say nothing of the pedophilia that’s implied throughout the running time. On the other hand are the viewers who see a disturbing and twisted movie that’s unafraid to venture into some very dark places. It’s a movie that asks if vigilante behavior is justifiable in rape/murder/missing persons cases, especially since those crimes are so notoriously difficult to convict. Personally, even if I didn’t like the answer the film came up with, I very much appreciate a movie asking the question with such bravado.

Hard Candy is a gloves-off gut punch. It’s streamlined, it’s got something to say, and it explores a traumatic subject in traumatic ways. David Slade’s signature aesthetic, nascent in Hard Candy, has now matured on “Hannibal”. He crafts images impeccably, and when he populates those images with characters as brilliantly written and performed as the ones in Hard Candy, the result is alchemical.

If nothing else, the film is worth seeing just for Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Between their performances and the fantastic direction from Slade, I would absolutely recommend this movie to anyone who has the stomach for it.

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