The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Hard Candy

Written by James MacDowell.

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We can surely agree with Hard Candy’s filmmakers and fans when they proudly tell us that this film is not a horror - as if making a genre film were something to be ashamed of. No: it has central aspirations to high moral drama (both writer and director have claimed that it is ultimately about “personal responsibility”) that nominally act to remove it from the horror bracket. What it does have at its core, however, is a sensational issue (paedophilia), as well as a crowd-pulling act of extreme violent cruelty (the DIY castration). As I hinted at in my short review, both these elements link it in my mind to another ‘low’ American genre, the ‘exploitation’ picture (both in the 40s/50s B-movie controversial flick sense, and the 70s/80s video nasty sense). The whole fun of this type of film essentially comes from the transgressive thrill you get from watching something so seemingly amoral - how well can this sit with the kind of moral investigation Hard Candy is apparently aiming for?

Let’s look at the moral dilemmas. Most of the ethical posers this film can throw at you are related to the basic question of whether or not we can justify Haley’s actions. I was initially disappointed when the script abandoned one major possibility for moral ambiguity when, in its final moments, it confirmed that Jeff was indeed involved with the murder of the missing girl. If that basic question had been left unanswered, I thought, the film would be infinitely more troubling since we wouldn’t even know if Haley’s moral crusade had any justification whatsoever. Having thought about it more, however, I have come to think that it actually makes us have to ask ourselves even more interesting questions if we know Jeff is guilty.

If we didn’t finally know the truth it would certainly be pleasing in the sense that it would be a teasing and original way to end a film, but psychologically it would in fact give us something of a get-out clause. If we don’t know whether he’s guilty or not, we aren’t forced to judge him. Knowing that he is in fact a paedophile and and a co-conspirator in child-murder means that Haley is at least justified in her rage towards him- the question then comes down to her violent channelling of it. Personally I believe that, since she essentially tries him without judge or jury and sentences him to death, her actions simply cannot be defended. Others may feel differently - that is the freedom the film allows you.

Seemingly, however, the film wants to get the moral jump on you by suggesting that - since Haley doesn’t finally do the deed herself but rather encourages Jeff to end his own life - the situation is more complex and that the criminal has judged himself unworthy of living. This is backed up by the overly-blatant mini soliloquy in which Jeff says, “This is who I am. Thank you for making me see it.” An interpretation like this doesn’t quite wash, however, when we consider that it is finally not merely the guilt that makes him jump, but rather the fact that his secret is going to be revealed to his first love (a shaky subplot that isn’t developed fully and ultimately seems rather cheap). This has the effect of dulling the potential moral weight of his suicide, making it seem more like an inevitable endgame than a profound assumption of personal responsibility.

Another broader way that the film makes itself less complex than it considers itself to be is by focussing not just on paedophilia, but muddying that issue and casually coupling it with murder. Clearly paedophilia is wrong, but it is a crime that encompasses far more moral shades of grey than does murder. Early on, when we are focussing on Jeff’s job as a photographer and the fashion shots he has done of underage girls, we are made to ponder the commodification of children and women, and the power and various potential usages of images in popular culture (Britney? The Olsen Twins?). There is also the morally troubling fact that it is Haley who has initiated this entire scenario (very arguably making Jeff seem less clearly responsible), as well as her troubling line: “Just because a girl can act like a woman, it doesn’t mean she’s ready to do what a woman does.” We can find ourselves agreeing with this statement whilst also questioning what it means when it comes from the mouth of a 14-year-old who doesn’t consider herself ready for sex, but does believe she is ready to torture and drive a man to suicide - does it take more maturity to sleep with someone than to end their life? All these questions buzz around the film until they are superseded by the infinitely more black-and-white issue of murder, at which point they cease to be its central focus and can basically be dismissed.

One moral complexity that is on one level undeniable, however, is that - as I touched on already - we are seemingly not led to applaud or condemn Haley’s actions, and are given enough leeway to feasibly have either reaction. The moment that nails this point best is when Jeff pleads with Haley, saying that she will be morally damaging herself if she goes through with what she is intending; Haley then throws this advice back at him: “What if I’d said that to you when you were about to download one of your photos - ‘stop, don’t do that to yourself…?’”

This moment, however, is a rare instance of brief insight into Haley’s character, who is otherwise merely a steely, determined, blank force. Indeed, the main thing that stops the film from being the moral investigation it is striving to be is the human emptiness of Haley: how can we possibly see her as a moral/ethical being if we know less than nothing about her? We are permitted to see no chinks in her armour, no doubt or slippage of her mask; when she says sadistically at the end, “Maybe not even called Haley,” we realise just how little we have come to know her, especially when compared to how much we have learnt about Jeff. In order to truly convince us that this is not jus a paedo-bashing exploitation flick we badly need some sense of humanity or weakness from the torturer and we are categorically not given this. When we see her walking away in the final shot, her ironic Little Red Riding Hood jacket hiding her eyes, she seems so unknowable, so inhuman - essentially, so like the simple plot compulsion she ultimately is.

In her wonderful book, Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol Clover convincingly attempts to reclaim certain horror and exploitation movies as feminist texts by virtue of the fact that - though women tend to be their primary victims throughout - it will usually be a girl/woman who turns the table in the final act and dispatches the (stereotypically) male aggressor. I would be interested to know what Clover would make of Hard Candy, since in some ways it appears to be the ultimate depiction of her thesis. I have a hunch, however, that she would not judge it as kindly as she does such straight-up exploitation as I Spit on Your Grave (1978), with its multiple-rape victim turning into an avenging murderer. Whereas I Spit on Your Grave allows us to get to know its female victim/victimizer - thus creating a certain degree of empathy with her rampage - Hard Candy’s girl protagonist is purely a blank torpedo of vengeance, all action and no psychology. This is what ultimately puts paid to the moral seriousness the film’s supporters claim it has: the ‘hard candy’ of its title remains just that - a cold, hard object that merely serves its titillating generic function then exits, its work complete. This is what finally makes the film trash - albeit trash of an interesting and illegitimately fun kind.

This Alternate Take was published on July 01, 2006.