Hard Candy

Rating 3½

Directed by David Slade

Written by Brian Nelson

Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh and Jennifer Holmes

Hayley (Ellen Page), a precocious 14-year-old, agrees to meet Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a 32-year-old photographer who has befriended her in an online chat room. They meet in a coffee shop called Nighthawks and from there go back to his spacious and isolated hilltop house, where he does nothing to discourage her from drinking copious amounts of vodka. The walls of the house are adorned with photographs of Jeff’s teenage models.

The stage is now set for Hayley to turn the tables and play dangerous mind games with a man she accuses of being a paedophile – drugging and torturing him in the process and exhibiting an impressive, not to say unlikely, amount of physical strength.

This independent psychological thriller cost less than $1 million to make. It was generally well received by critics, although a degree of controversy was caused by the subject matter. I am not sure why the film critic Mark Kermode thinks the film is “funny”, but it did promote a wide range of reactions. This was a breakthrough role for Ellen Page, who subsequently received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in ‘Juno’. Director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson went on to make the vampire movie ’30 Days of Night’.

The first thing to strike the viewer, aside from the confrontational subject, must surely be the performances of Page and Wilson, in what is basically a double header. They occupy all of the screen time and the other characters are no more than brief cameos in the story. Page, in particular, gets deep into the rage of her character, although I could never quite escape the impression that she was playing Juno once again, only in a much darker form.

I have to admit I am not entirely sure what the film is trying to say. On the one hand, it could be taken as a kind of updating of ‘Death Wish’, with Page as a teenage vigilante. Possibly it plays like an updating of Clint Eastwood’s quasi-mystical avenging angel in ‘High Plains Drifter’. There is a certain visceral enjoyment to be had from the thought of a paedophile being castrated by his intended victim, but the roles are blurred here. Who exactly is the predator and who is the prey? Are we supposed to hope that Jeff escapes from Hayley’s clutches? If not, does it mean we should recognise arbitrary torture as an acceptable form of punishment?

It is hard not to take the side of Hayley, but equally it is distinctly depressing to accept the degree of world-weary cynicism she has succumbed to. Page gives a performance nuanced enough so we never forget that Hayley is just 14-years-old and still somewhat childlike, emphasising her descent in psychosis.

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