Hard Candy is an open challenge: what do you make of it? I certainly don’t know. It pits two entirely despicable characters against each other in a game of merciless psychological terror, the brutality so jarring that one’s mind forgets what it knows about the characters and simply defaults to sympathizing with the helpless one. It’s a bewildering, unrewarding experience, and also a powerful and unique film.
The first half of the film is tantalizingly vague. I had no idea where the film was taking me and grooved on the vague sense of dread, accentuated by the odd editing and occasional cuts to black. We see 32 year-old fashion photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) meet 14 year-old Hayley (Ellen Page), having arranged the meeting online. She is impressed with his looks and togetherness; he’s impressed too, as she seems mature beyond her years, and only marginally cautious about him and the myriad possibilities. In fact, she’s manifestly willing, almost eager — but why? Rebellion against her parents? Sheer curiosity? Something else?
They go to his apartment, which doubles as his studio. He claims to know his boundaries, though he doesn’t object when Hayley opts to fix herself a strong drink. He never touches her, but verbally, he all but rapes her, making his motives all the more inscrutable. Okay, I figured: secrets will out. They will have some connection. All is not as it seems, even if it doesn’t seem like anything in particular.
And oh, all is not as it seems, all right. (This, incidentally, is the part where you might stop reading if you would prefer to see the film cold, which I would strongly recommend.) The twist, which neatly splits the film in half, blindsided me: it is, of course, the perfectly obvious solution to the preceding 45 minutes — the only one, really — but Hard Candy hadn’t played like This Kind of Movie, and so I was thrown for a loop.
Then, of course, the fun starts, with the torture and the screaming. It’s excruciating, even more so for the fact that the film never gives us a moral baseline to work from: we know neither Hayley’s motivations, nor the extent of Jeff’s misdeeds. The fact that we know enough to suspect something about both only makes the experience more painful. The “psychological horror” of Hard Candy consists just as much of the film playing sadistic games with us as of the characters playing them with each other.
The film is even more diabolical in the way it drops hints of a “solution” — something silly and pat — but goes off in another direction, more straightforward than one might expect, and more unflinchingly brutal. A few times I thought I had “figured it out,” and rolled my eyes, only to find that I had seen a phantom. This isn’t a movie you figure out; it’s not an exercise in cleverness, and it’s not in the business of rewarding yours.
So what is it, really? The poster shows Little Red Riding Hood standing in the middle of an enormous, about-to-spring bear trap, suggesting that, at least in someone’s mind, this is a story of subversion and revenge: the wolf getting what’s coming to him. But that’s not right: there’s no moral vindication here, except perhaps in Hayley’s mind. Hard Candy seemed entirely nihilistic and cold, and more observational than engaged. It repulsed me at first. Ultimately, I valued the experience. David Slade’s feature debut doesn’t let itself be pinned down as being about something, but a movie this skilled at getting under my skin doesn’t need a purpose.