Movie Review: Hard Candy
If you are planning to see the new David Slade film, Hard Candy, I am warning you now: this post is spoiler-central.
You probably know the premise: an underage girl and a thirty-something guy meet on the Internet, then decide to meet in real life. The beginning of the film is well-written in that satisfyingly, nausteatingly awkward way of first dates and the man, Jeff, and the girl, Haley, meet up for coffee and she convinces him to take her home to hear a bootleg Goldfrapp song. It takes about twenty minutes for the "big twist": she drugged him and wants to hurt him for being attracted to children. Now, let's see how other people read this:
The best feminist revenge flicks are generally the ones which are made by men. Although women can be just as nasty as men, the latter are generally more violent and have bloodier imaginations. ...
When he wakes up, he's tied to a chair, and Hayley, far from a lascivious lamb, is revealed to be a fiery feminist avenger, acidly witty beyond her years. She has agreed to meet this swank modern-day Humbert for the purpose of torturing him for his sins. Be warned: As directed by David Slade, from a script by Brian Nelson that suggests David Mamet in a mood of porno sadism, Hard Candy is extreme — a battle of the sexes that glides from tricky to angry to shockingly ugly. As Jeff is forced to confront the ultimate male nightmare, the movie flirts with exploitation, only to be saved, somewhat, by the cleverness of its observations about male hypocrisy and female wrath.
Canadian wunderkind Ellen Page is a teenager chatting online with a much older man, stage vet Patrick Wilson, who makes the bold move to meet him. The two share halting, creepily flirtatious banter, until it becomes clear that he has walked right into a trap fueled by female vengeance--and chock-full of cringe-worthy torture. But this seemingly cut-and-dry case has shades of gray: Hayley is clearly disturbed, and you're not quite sure if Jeff is the enemy here--or is he? The whole affair feels as much like a stunt as it does an exploration of crime and punishment, but is no less thrilling a ride.
''Hard Candy" is an ugly, propulsive piece of provocation that's worth sitting through for the questions it leaves hanging acridly in the air. It's irresponsible, obvious, sadistic, and ham-handed, not to mention possibly the worst date movie ever invented. It isn't even very well made. You might still want to go out of your way to catch it. Few movies open up the chasm between what men want and how women should respond. ''Hard Candy" bashes it open with a sledgehammer.
Someone please explain to me what "feminism" has to do with any of this and how, other than the fact that the child is female, this is a "battle of the sexes"? While I relished seeing a small female with such violence and control, I think that, as long as he were of similar age and stature, the character could have been a boy. In fact, I think that the point was being made visually by the two actors/characters: 1. androgynous girl, not simply androgynous by her undeveloped body, but accentuated by her short haircut and her dress - Converse sneakers, baggy hoodie, and jeans (even under her clothes, a sports bra) and 2. an attractive,
metrosexual, sometimes mincing, fashion photographer. This was not a mini-Britney and a 50-something with a gut. In fact, even in their flirtation, it was age, rather than gender, that was constantly asserting itself as their difference.
I must admit that the fact that all these men think this movie is about "feminist revenge" or "relations between the sexes" is rather disturbing to me. What's disturbing is that "age" was obviously read here as "gender"; "femininity" is so easily equated with "youth" that these reviewers (perhaps I shouldn't harp on this, but these men writing reviews) can't seem to make a distinction.
I mean, her rage comes not from his having sexual desire, or even from his having "heterosexual" desire, but from his having desire for persons underage and for pursuing those desires, to whatever point he actually does. (More on that later.)
The other thing that disturbs me is the association of "feminism" with "castration" - ummmm, what year is this?
Ahem, so ... the film relies on various tropes of pedophilia-interested-art that have simply become less interesting over time. Nabokov's Lolita may well be one of the greatest novels ever written, make that greatest works of art ever made, but recycling his work over and over (even if some of it was stolen) is getting tedious and actually distances us from the characters, which is quite the opposite of what made Lolita such a triumph.
Anne Gilbert explains:
the screenplay, by Brian Nelson, is oddly reliant on the unnecessary device/contrivance of Jeff’s ex-girlfriend, and the schemes and plans Hayley has in place are, once you step back, so over the top they are nearly laughable. This girl’s thirst for vengeance is a deeply rooted flair for the dramatic. And the conclusion, when it finally comes after the numerous twists and turns, left me somewhat unsatisfied.
The notion that pedophilia is an urge by which tortured people try to recapture the feelings of their first love is a fine one, but one which has been amply considered. Annabel = Dolores. Blah, blah, blah.
Also Nabakovian is that Haley is fucking annoying and obnoxious. Sometimes this was well-executed in Hard Candy but not to any particular end. Whereas, in Lolita, this exercise in humanizing and juvelinizing pulled us in and out, alternating between an understanding of Humbert's attraction and a repulsion with it, on its very grounds, Haley was just a typical movie killer - annoying in the way Clive Owen's character was in Inside Man and, for that matter, the way basically all villians have become this "witty" narcissistic know-it-alls these days.
This movie will be most appreciated by those who don't demand viewer identification with an on-screen individual, because neither of Hard Candy's characters is the sort of person a healthy movie-goer would sympathize with. ...
By the end of the film, we don't know a lot more about them than we do at the beginning. Hayley's real motives remain a mystery. Jeff's guilt or innocence in the most heinous of the crimes is undetermined.
As far as identifying with the characters is concerned, because Slade and Brian Nelson's screenplay does little to give these people any defining individual characteristics beyond gaggy stereotypes, the Slade is forced to make us identify with the Jeff character simply by making him go through the most horrifying of experiences. The actor, Patrick Wilson, is top-notch and the castration scene is, therefore, a tour-de-force that made me ill, angry, terrified, and sad. It was the part of the film most worth watching for purely visceral, you've-probably-never-been-here-before, reasons. (Quick comment on the acting: the idea that Ellen Page upstaged Patrick Wilson is utter bullshit and reminds me of the advice I would always give my adult actors trying to breakout, if I were an agent - don't try to make your mark in a movie co-starring a kid. If they're borderline competent, they'll get the love. Anyway, Patrick Wilson gave a knockout performance.) Anyway, the use of such extreme violence then became a crutch.
Sure, the idea of the extreme violence could be making a statement. But what was the statement? Here is the major complaint and question I have about the film.
What I wanted this film to be, when the "plot twist" came and Haley was revealed to be the threat, was a meditation on the excesses in societal attitudes toward sexual desire for children. I felt vindicated when it seemed that what Jeff was guilty of was not of perpetrating violence against children directly, but of viewing pornographic materials featuring children and engaging in sexual banter over the Internet with some of them. Yes, these things are illegal, but are they really
deserving of castration and torture?
Of course, the denouement foils my reading of the film, making it actually rather boring. Jeff either raped and murdered a child or participated in said crime. He is not being punished for his thoughts, for his desires, for his questionable or borderline activities, but for an actual, hard-to-argue-with-that crime. He agrees: stabbing a picture of a little girl on his wall, he says, "You're right, Haley. This is who I am. Thank you for showing me."
Now, sure, no one should take the law into their own hands, etc, etc, but I'm not compelled by a film whose argument is so bland. Especially a film that teases with controversy.
My other complaints were of the "this makes no sense" nature:
1. Why didn't she actually castrate him?
2. If she wanted him dead, why'd she spend all this time keeping him alive?
3. What was up with Sandra Oh showing up carrying Girl Scout cookies?
4. What was the meaning of the pop culture references: Elizabeth Woetzel, Goldfrapp, Zadie Smith? I mean, on the surface, I get it, but I would hope it goes a little deeper than that.
5. How the hell does Haley know everything about this guy?
I could go on.
This is a conservative movie wrapped up in a hip liberal indie package. Don't buy it.
Edited to add: Here are two more blog-reviews of the film you should check out FourFour and Everything in Moderation Including Moderation.