Reviewed by James MacDowell.
A big hit at this year’s Sundance (a fact that may or may not recommend a film to you) Hard Candy tells the familiar story of the victim who becomes the victimizer. 14-year-old Haley - pretty, precocious and wise beyond her tender years - suggests a meeting with the charming Jeff, a 32-year-old man she has befriended in an internet chatroom. This coffee-house semi-date then moves back to Jeff’s apartment, where Haley - convinced she is dealing with a paedophile - dramatically, violently, turns the tables on her adoring host.
This intriguing thriller falls somewhere illogical between sober moral drama and hysterical exploitation flick - as if it were the product of some unholy non-consensual union between The Accused (1988) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978). There is no denying the weight of some of the issues at stake in its taut two-handed screenplay, but equally impossible to overlook are the more sensational aspects of the themes’ treatment. How seriously you take the morally complex subject will depend largely on the angle you choose to look at the film from: is this a misanthropic revenge-movie striving vainly for profundity, or a high-minded morality play employing some below-the-belt genre games? Does it finally even matter?
The central performances - both from Angels in America's (2003) Patrick Wilson and newcomer Ellen Page - are expertly crafted, if not always entirely believable in a realist sense. The direction, though superficially aesthetically pleasing, betrays first-timer Slade's background in slick adverts and Warp music videos and tends to detract from the drama of the situation. All cold, metallic colours and tight hand-held close-ups, the style is excessively polished, lending an unwelcome air of Porsche lifestyle fetishism to the proceedings. This, again, creates another barrier for those wishing to engage seriously with the film's subject matter.
I have gone backwards and forwards in my opinions on the film. I was disappointed numerous times by its narrative choices - it would appear to be heading somewhere truly exceptional then double-back into something more familiar. Yet at the same time its central concept always had its nails dug into me, preventing me from dismissing the story completely. It is certainly not the horror movie some are touting it as (if you are hoping for as much you will be sorely disappointed), but it undeniably plays with some of the cliches of the genre at least half-effectively. It has delusions of grandeur, but these delusions make it more interesting than would a controlled self-awareness.
I feel I must ultimately recommend the film, if only because it issues its audience with a perplexing challenge - perhaps not the profound moral or philisophical challenge it is aiming for, but a challenge nonetheless.
This review was published on June 25, 2006.
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