When watching a film about pedophilia, one of the first questions you might ask is: what is the point of making a film about this? Why would all of these people collaborate to tell this story and why would anyone (even a movie critic) want to watch it? The subject is extremely sensitive and the potential for exploitation is high–if you don’t believe me, let me point out that at this particular screening, the audience was 99% male, mostly over 30. However, rather than passing judgment on the filmmakers or the audience, the tough job in responding to film of this nature is to evaluate on purely artistic levels–in other words, is it any good?
Being uncomfortable during a movie is not necessarily bad. Most people who have seen it will tell you that Schindler’s List was tough to watch, but important viewing. However, humanizing Holocaust survivors is not the same thing as humanizing pedophiles–there is an inherent resistance to empathizing with the latter. Films like The Woodsman and L.I.E. managed to do this without excusing or justifying the crimes committed. Hard Candy, on the other hand, is more concerned with being shocking than with provoking thought or effecting change.
The set-up is established within the first ten minutes of the film: 30-something photographer Geoff (Patrick Wilson) has been flirting online with 14 year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) for several weeks and the two finally agree to meet. After some awkward, genuinely creepy banter at a coffee shop, Hayley and Geoff return to his house, liquor is served and the sense of impending horror grows. The twist to this film is that it is Hayley who is trapping Geoff and the bulk of the film deals with her turning the tables on Geoff and enacting a peculiar and disturbing agenda.
First-time feature director David Slade and first-time writer Brian Nelson have some interesting ideas, and they create a pervading uneasiness in the early scenes. The problem is that their "big twist," while potentially novel, throws the film completely off-balance and sends the film into melodramatic territory that becomes increasingly implausible, gratuitous and ridiculous. Their biggest error lies in Hayley—the character is so cruel, sadistic, heartless and psychotic that she becomes the villain. Meanwhile, they withhold information about Geoff’s criminal background for much of the film in an attempt to create doubt about how much of a predator he really is. As a result, the victimized Geoff has our sympathy. I suspect this was the intent—the blurring of lines between good and evil; asking the audience to confront the question of who is worse, Hayley or Geoff. The problem is it’s not grey, it’s black and white, just in the opposite direction. For three quarters of the film, Hayley mentally and physically tortures Geoff. Then, in the eleventh hour, the filmmakers try to bring out some of Geoff’s bad guy qualities to justify Hayley’s actions, but it’s too little too late.
As Geoff, Patrick Wilson gives a terrific performance, quite different from his leading man role in The Phantom of the Opera. His emotional range in the film is astonishing, especially during an extremely distasteful torture sequence that makes up the bulk of the film’s midsection. He is the lone reason to watch this film. In contrast, Ellen Page (who is actually 19), is all wrong as Hayley, falling into the one-dimensional trap set by the writing. Every move, every line Page delivers is fake and actressy; she offers not one honest moment in the entire film. Furthermore, while we see Geoff run the full gamut of emotions, Hayley stays the same–and the lack of character change is the fault of both actress and the writing.
What I realized at the end of Hard Candy was that this film was not really about pedophilia—it merely exploits that sensitive topic to get to it’s real purpose: torture and revenge. A word of caution: the physical abuse that makes up a good part of the movie is extremely unsettling, even nauseating–if you’re still recovering from Hostel or The Passion of the Christ, I don’t recommend this film to you. As a matter of fact, I can’t really think of anyone I would recommend it to. Those of you who remembers the film/play Extremities fondly, might find this sort of look-how-shocking-we-are filmmaking engrossing, but mostly will be simply revolted by the cold, sadistic simplicity with which deals with highly emotional and complicated problems.
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