Hard Candy (USA, 2005)
Directed by David Slade
Starring Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh, Odessa Rae
In 21st-century society, there are few subjects which can produce such guaranteed levels of hysteria as paedophilia and child sexual abuse. Technological progress, particularly the development of the internet and social media, has made sex scandals more immediate and more sensational, at least in the way in which they are reported. It has also resulted in a feeling that our culture is collectively under attack whenever such a scandal breaks; the public response to Operation Yewtree and the revelations about the Paedophile Information Exchange has been as chastened and ashen-faced as the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings or any other recent terror attack.
But just as erotic thrillers like Fifty Shades of Grey often oversell their rauchiness to disguise how tame they really are, so films about sexual abuse (at least in the English-speaking world) have been decidedly hands-off for some time. Not every piece of media about such a difficult and delicate subject matter has to be as contentious and uncomfortable as BrassEye, but the likes of Catfish and Trust are ultimately very sensitive, well-behaved affairs, which approach their subject in a manner which avoids causing offence but often at the expense of saying anything significant. It takes a great deal of bravery and intelligence to make a film which tackles this extremely tough subject in a manner which is both nuanced and brutally honest - and that is where Hard Candy comes in.
When Hard Candy first came out, a lot of the analysis focussed on the visual imagery of the characters, which had been played up in the marketing. The posters for the film made it out to be a modern-day retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, with Ellen Page's Red Riding Hood going after Patrick Wilson's Big Bad Wolf. The Japanese website for the film even used the tagline: "Red Hood traps the Wolf in his own game".
It's been widely documented since then that the allusion to the fairy tale was largely a coincidence; Hayley's red hooded sweatshirt was not premeditated symbolism, and the creative team merely seized upon the opportunity. It's also arguable that trying to reduce Hard Candy down to 'merely' being a fairy tale belies the psychological depth which it exhibits. But it should still be said that horror films and crime thrillers often incorporate elements of the story, or ones similar to it, to create empathy with a diminutive protagonist. The ne plus ultra of this technique is The Silence of the Lambs, in which Red Riding Hood (Clarice) has to use one Big Bad Wolf (Lector) to catch a bigger, badder one (Buffalo Bill).
In the great pantheon of horror-thrillers with fairy tale elements, Hard Candy is in some respects a close cousin of Freeway, an under-seen mid-1990s effort which gave an early break to Reese Witherspoon. As well as the arguments about the shared Little Red Riding Hood heritage, both Matthew Bright and David Slade make use of the low-budget, independent aesthetic to bring out the edgy qualities of their respective stories. The washed-out colour palettes and handheld camerawork with tight close-ups put us uncomfortably close to the characters, forcing us to confront their every flaw and spot their every tell.
The visuals of Hard Candy are very carefully orchestrated to reflect the subtle shifts in the character dynamic, something which prevents this intimate two-hander from ever becoming stagey. Jo Willems, who later shot The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, does a very fine job, but the real credit should go to his digital colourist, Jean-Clement Sorret. The film was shot with the characters being slightly over-lit, and after shooting was completed, Sorret went through the film frame-by-frame, turning down the frequencies in scenes where Hayley felt threatened or angry. Aside from Roger Deakins' painstaking colour correction on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, such a meticulous approach was unprecedented, and it pays off, creating a startling, creeping claustrophobia which leaves us gasping for breath.
The single biggest strength of Hard Candy is that it constantly forces us to question the moral authority of both parties, particularly Ellen Page's character. Had the script been any weaker, or the direction any less steadfast, the film would have quickly descended into a nasty little revenge thriller - I Spit On Your Grave by proxy, as it were. Given the evidence which is stacked against Jeff, we're not exactly rooting for him, but we don't support Hayley unconditionally, particularly as more details about her methods and motivation come to light. The film wants to explore how each party justifies or defends their actions, how morally warped the whole situation is, and what we would do if put in the same situation.
In doing so, the film manages to tackle both the horrible crime of child sexual abuse and address the hysteria and culture of vigilantism which has sprung up as a result of it. Slade does a great job with Jeff of showing us a banal, normal exterior with something deeply sinister buried just beneath. Jeff's initial scenes are similar to those with the villain in The Vanishing: they both seem normal to the point of boring, even though what they are doing is increasingly unspeakable. Jeff's pictures are shot in an almost Kubrickian manner, with the sheer whites, subtle reds and smooth camera angles being a possible reference to the long, slow corridor shots in The Shining.
Hard Candy pulls an equally good deception on us with Hayley. Page's first few scenes are very naturalistic; you don't get the sense, either in the online conversations or the first encounter in the cafe, of someone consciously pretending or repressing something to hide their true intentions. It's only once the screwdrivers have been downed and the screen goes blurry that the visage starts to crack, and we understand with horror what kind of driven, ruthless monster lies beneath. Page has always had a gift for managing to play distant characters while still making us care about them; here we are simultaneouly perturbed by her matter-of-fact moments and drawn to her impulsive, moralistic outbursts.
Many horror films which accrue the kind of reputation that Hard Candy enjoys often do so because of the reputation of a given sequence. Sometimes, as with the chest-burster in Alien, the sequence in question is burned so strongly into the public's consciousness that it feels unwittedly like a set-piece; critical reaction can turn just another line of dialogue into a patch of purple prose, often against the writer or director's intentions. It's therefore gratifying that Slade manages to avoid that trap here, cooking up a sequence which is truly horrifying yet part of a continuous whole.
The castration scene in Hard Candy is at turns gruesome, nerve-jangling, chilling and a brilliant piece of misdirection. Despite appearing to just exploit some base, simple fear (i.e. the loss of one's genitals), it also brings out the metaphor behind this action, just as any decent horror film should. If you want to see this scene on the simplest level - a paedophile getting what many may feel he deserves - you can do so, but the film shoots it so slowly and clinically that it produces no joy or feeling of vindication. This slow pace lets the implications come to the fore - the symbolic loss of male power and agency, the consequences of the vigilante following through on their dark desires, and what it says about the human condition in general. If nothing else, it's handled more assuredly and with clearer artistic intentions than the scissors sequence in Lars von Trier's Antichrist.
Much of the plaudits for the performances have rightly focussed on Ellen Page. Two years before her mainstream breakthrough in Juno, this was the role which announced her as one of the most promising acting talents of her generation. But for all her convincing and frightening intensity, it would all be for very little without the support of Patrick Wilson, whose collapse into blind fear, panic and despair is utterly gripping. It's a pity in hindsight that Wilson's career hasn't achieved the same level of success, discounting the heavily flawed Watchmen and the perplexingly overpraised The Conjuring.
Hard Candy is a gripping, thrilling and chilling calling card for both its major stars and its director on debut. Despite a slightly shaky ending, in terms of both content and pacing, it manages to serve up both shocks and substance to do justice to its tricky subject matter. It is testament to the notion that an issue can be graphically explored without exploiting it, and even the most taboo of notions can be approached if great care is taken. If nothing else, it's a great benchmark for modern horror and thriller filmakers which will stand the test of time.
NEXT REVIEW: The Italian Job (1969)