Cross “Extremities” with “Oleanna” and you’ll get something akin to “Hard Candy”–part cat-and-mouse bondage melodrama and part debate about the abuse of women by men. The movie aims to be a provocative, viscerally troubling, puzzlingly clever tale of a young girl’s vigilante justice against a man who may well be a child molester (perhaps even a serial killer). But ultimately it comes across as more unsavory than enlightening and more sensationalistic than instructive.
Brian Nelson’s script is a very simple tale with concluding twists. A fourteen-year old girl named Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) arranges to meet an older fellow, photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), at an L.A. cafe after connecting with him on-line. Before long they’ve gone back to his plush house in the hills. He seems gentlemanly but slightly snarky, she forward for her age, and they share a drink before anything untoward happens. Suddenly Jeff passes out, and wakes up to find himself trussed up and charged by Hayley with being a pedophile and perhaps the person responsible for the disappearance of another young girl. What follows is a long dialogue between the two as Jeff protests his innocence and Hayley searches the house for evidence of his guilt. And though there are points when the worm nearly turns, by the halfway point Jeff is tied down to a table and threatened by the girl with castration. The picture tries to ratchet up the tension by playing Hayley at a higher and higher pitch, making one wonder if she’s simply nuts, and concentrating on Jeff’s escalating terror with the suggestion that though he might not be a perfect guy, he might not deserve this. (It also introduces a neighbor to plant the seed that perhaps someone will intervene.) And in the end a series of revelations further muddy the narrative waters.
Obviously “Hard Candy” is going for shock value, and from the standpoint of audience nerves it surely succeeds. The premise alone can’t help but make you uncomfortable. And the actors surely throw themselves into the piece with a vengeance, if you’ll pardon the pun. Page is initially coquettish and eventually venomous, keeping the energy level unabated. Wilson has less opportunity to impress, spending most of his on-screen time in various stages of bondage, but apart from a disconcerting likeness to Josh Lucas, he’s fine. The production is good enough, too, with a metallic look to the images that suits the curiously sterile atmosphere.
What cripples “Hard Candy” is the lack of backstory–we never learn why Hayley is doing what she does, or how she acquired the knowledge she possesses–and the dialogue, which never really seems genuine. There’s a staginess to it that suggests the script might have originated as a play, where a degree of affectation isn’t merely permitted but expected, and has been transposed clumsily to the screen. The man’s whining and pleas are realistic enough, but frankly the girl’s hyper diatribes come across as overly theatrical. On the boards one can get away with such excess, but on film it seems too high-pitched and calculated even for a situation like this.
It’s easy to dismiss “Hard Candy” as nothing more than sensationalistic claptrap, but one may prefer to consider it as an effort to address some serious issues in a dramatic way. If that’s the motivation, however, the picture isn’t really a success. Like “Extremities,” it creates a situation so over-the-top that it seems to be ugly rather than commenting on ugliness. And like “Oleanna,” it sets up a gender confrontation that ends up more didactic than emotionally resonant. The upshot is that the film isn’t merely difficult to swallow, but none too tasty going down.