out of ****
The question we have to ask about Hard Candy is whether or not its protagonist, a fourteen year-old girl who literally preys upon a pedophile throughout the course of the film, is an angel of justice or an angel of vengeance. There is a notable difference between these two: The former attempts to bring tough but fair closure to a wronged situation (a la Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider), and the latter acts out of strong emotions until their rage is sufficed, fair or not (a la Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter). What’s tricky here is how the film intentionally skirts the line between the two distinct approaches and forces us to react to its extremes: It is impossible on one level not to root for the girl’s often violent acts as the film slowly peels away the layers of her victim to reveal the kind of disgusting creature that he is; on the other hand, it is also impossible not to feel sympathy and pity for the victim, who is trapped in such helpless scenes of torture that we find ourselves wanting him to escape from her wrath, even as his despicable sins are made more and more clear. There’s no question that the victim is a monster; I suppose that how we feel about his treatment ultimately boils down to the difference between justice and vengeance. Are the acts against him extreme? Yes. Can a case be made that he deserves them? Yes. Can a case be made that he doesn’t deserve them? Yes. And this is where it gets complicated.
The film begins in a peaceful coffee shop, when the thirty-something photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) meets the fourteen-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) in what is clearly a game of seduction. She is “mature for her age,” as Jeff puts it, which translates to mean she is shy, articulate, and fully aware of Jeff’s intentions. Jeff is kind—too kind, of course—and his quiet flirtations and calm suggestions (“Should we call your sister and let her know you’re going to my house?”) almost create an air of innocence about him that suggests his intentions are pure. Almost. This sequence is unnerving in how it flirts with seduction by calmly revealing the method of both characters through their quiet conversation and vague smiles. They both know why they’re meeting, they both know what the other wants, and they both seem satisfied in their roles.
The scene that immediately follows is one of stark desolation, containing the only extreme shot in a film of close-ups and subtle gestures. Jeff takes a willing Hayley to his car, and the parking lot is empty and sterile, save his ride, which is a colorful speck on a lonely screen of white. These few shots are certainly the most ominous in the entire picture, conveying a tone almost apocalyptic in nature: Jeff and Hayley are isolated from the whole world, and they will stay alone for the remainder of the film. The sterile nature of their surroundings will soon be replaced with manipulation, violence, depravity, and, depending on how you choose to interpret Hayley’s actions, justice or vengeance.
The remainder of the film takes place entirely in Jeff’s house, and I will be very careful not to reveal the particulars of what happens there, or to whom. Trailers and taglines already reveal that Jeff finds himself trapped and rendered helpless by Hayley, who is not what she seems; any and all other information must be approached cold in order to fully experience the unyielding terror and pity that the film alternates between both players. Hard Candy basically boils down to mind-games and, often, physical torture that flirts between being grotesquely inappropriate and appropriately grimacing. Jeff plays the victim most of the time, but not always. There are moments in which the power play shifts, and Hayley finds herself losing control of the situation. Such moments reach us like gasps of air for a drowning man, which is disturbing in and of itself, since we hardly want to find ourselves cheering for a child molester.
But for the most part, Jeff spends the majority of his time trapped and begging, and his pleas only seem to fuel Hayley’s morbid decision making. When she is not taunting or torturing him, she levels with him by making very clear why she is punishing him. He tries to retort; he insists that she was coming on to him, which is correct. But so is her reply: “Just because a girl acts like a woman doesn’t give a grown man the right to treat her like one.” The film continues with similar dialogue, in which Jeff tries to find an angle out of this impossible situation, and Hayley continuously shoots him down with reason, common sense, and basic morality that would be obvious to anyone, including Jeff. She literally caught him with his pants down, and if he has any justification against her actions, it is not because he doesn’t deserve some version of justice.
So: What version of justice does he deserve? What makes Hard Candy a brilliant experience, besides its utter control of cinematic devices, is the moral question that it raises of how far is too far. On one hand, the film plays like a fantasy stemmed from our most violent instincts when we watch the news and hear about the kidnapping, molestation, and/or murder of an innocent. Our initial reaction, no matter how civil we’d like to think we are, is the desire to make the monsters responsible truly suffer for their crime, to force on them the same pain and horror their victims felt. Now, is this really justice, or is it our merely primal emotions as we are overwhelmed with disgust over what one human being will do to another? Does the harboring of such violent thoughts ourselves make us any better than those who we demonize? On the other hand, is the process of the legal system sufficient for a man who has repeatedly violated and killed multiple children? Is life in prison enough for someone with the weight of both traumatized and murdered girls on his head?
How do we measure, then, a fair punishment and an unfair one? Will any punishment truly suffice for such despicable crimes? Possibly: It cannot be said that Jeff doesn’t receive hard-hitting retribution that surely teaches him a harrowing lesson.
On the other hand (a line you will find yourself repeating as you watch this film), as Jeff screams in agony and begs for mercy, we wish that Hayley would listen to his appeal, simply because of our natural revulsion to watching people suffer (at least outside of the context of schlock horror). And so the film intentionally forces us to consider the contradiction within us to wish violence on a person and then retract these convictions out of human decency. It is tempting to simply assume that both Hayley and Jeff lack the moral barriers that most of us have to control our bloodthirsty impulses, but we cannot reasonably make this case; Hayley’s setup and explanations reveal someone who is clearly moral and who is forcing a person without morals to consider her principles on the most extreme level. That her target is such a despicable person, and that her actions force him to see what an indecent person he is, must be taken into account.
I suppose whether or not Hayley sees what she is doing as justice or something else must be considered. She admits to Jeff that she is crazy, but it’s too easy to believe that madness alone is what drives her. Certainly the film provides additional hints for why a 14 year old would want to act in such a disturbing manner, but its focus is primarily on retribution, not motivation. Roger Ebert has an interesting theory in his review that I’m not sure I agree with. He seems to think that Hayley is as sexually turned on by dominating Jeff as Jeff is by molesting young girls. He writes, “While [Hard Candy] tells its horrifying parable about pedophilia, isn't it dealing at the same time with sexually charged images some audience members will find appealing? True, as far as I know, there is no tradition of pornography about men being tortured by young girls; usually the dominant female is adult, as she must be to feed into her victim's fantasies about authority figures. Still, what precisely is going on here, and is it anywhere near as clear as it seems? Is Ellen perhaps getting some pleasure of her own out of the situation she has created for Jeff? Are there two perverts in the room?”
Hayley’s sharp condemnation of Jeff’s actions makes me skeptical of Ebert’s supposition. There is no indication that any of this is arousing her, even as Jeff’s reactions to her torment clearly please her. My theory is that Hayley’s character works as a nearly supernatural force; she is a ghost-like wraith delivering revenge as she sees fit on those who deserve it yet have eluded the law. She is certainly god-like in her knowledge of Jeff and his secrets, indicating that she either has mind-reading powers or she has done this before. Perhaps she or someone she knows was molested as a child, and she has dedicated her life to this cause; perhaps she is literally a specter (a la The Crow) who makes it her business to visit herself upon pedophiles. Perhaps she is the spirit of every molested child manifested into a human form. I’m not sure that we need more of a motivation than what she provides when she tells Jeff, “I’m every girl you ever molested, raped, and murdered.” This is a parable, after all, about the difference between what someone deserves and what we think they deserve. Why the characters act the way they do is secondary to what they do, and how we react to it.
The film must also be considered one of the best of the year for its technical achievements alone. There is little gore in the film, and none of it is graphic. Sexuality is only implied. Yet this is one of the most disturbing fables on both violence and sexuality to come around in a long while, emphasizing both without showing either. This could have been a film Hitchcock made, featuring direction (from David Slade), writing (from Brian Nelson), and acting that reveals complete control over the filmmaking craft. Watch carefully how the director utilizes the human face to tell his story, and how these faces are constantly contrasting with different color filters to express mood. Often, a dominant color will be in sharp disparity to the emotion of the scene, constantly forcing us to wonder how much of what is happening on the surface is really a charade. And as for Ellen Page as Hayley—here is an actress with a future ahead of her. Look at the way her eyes darken and her lips purse when she calmly, smoothly tells Jeff, “Game-time is over.” She’s not joking, and in the hands of another performer, the line could have inspired laughs. For that matter, the whole film could have been campy and over-the-top, like Misery, Boxing Helena, and other similarly-plotted films. Instead, it’s utterly stupefying how effectively the film’s cinematic qualities continuously shift our emotions back and forth between these two very different predators, using not much else than conversations, close-ups, and colors.
So I think I have a pretty good idea of the film’s themes, but what about the moral of the story? I’m reminded of a joke my grandfather used to tell me: Little Red Riding Hood is walking through the woods. When she comes to her grandmother’s house, she walks in and sees a wolf lying in her grandmother’s bed, dressed like her grandmother. Little Red Riding Hood thinks about it for a moment, puts her hand in her picnic basket, pulls out a double-barrel shotgun, and blows the wolf’s head off. The moral of the story is that little girls are a lot smarter than they used to be.
By the end of Hard Candy, Jeff has learned this lesson, and I guess the only person who can know whether his Little Red Riding Hood acted out of justice or vengeance is him. The rest of us are too focused on the revulsion that we have witnessed to be able to know if it is right to cross such a line with a person who has continuously crossed it over and over again. But at least we know now why Little Red Riding Hood feels inclined, in this day and age, to carry a shotgun with her picnic.
Patrick Wilson: Jeff
Ellen Page: Hayley
A Lions Gate Films release. Directed by David Slade. Written by Brian Nelson. Rated R, for disturbing, intense moments, brief violence, implied sexuality, and strong language. Running time: 100 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: April 14, 2006.