Wolves in little girls’ clothing
Besides being the title of the new movie from director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson, “hard candy” is supposedly Internet slang for an underage girl—jailbait. That fact, if it is a fact, isn’t mentioned in Nelson’s script; you have to get it from the trivia section of the movie’s Internet Movie Database listing. The title is only one of the things that Nelson and Slade don’t bother to explain as they take us through the paces of their psychological thriller.
In this case, the “candy,” in the person of 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page), is hard indeed. But we don’t see the hardness at first, only the candy, as Hayley, using the screen name “Thonggrrrrrl14,” flirts on line with “Lensman319.” She suggests they hook up; his reply is almost wistful: “For real? When?” They make a date for 11 a.m. at a local coffeehouse. Hayley shows up in a red sweatshirt, looking for all the world like Little Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf in the woods.
The wolf, “Lensman319,” is Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), a 32-year-old photographer with a wispy stubble of beard that belies his boyish manner. As they sit chatting about books and music, Jeff is friendly and charming, Hayley earnest and eager to be liked. He comes off as a grown man who acts 18, while she seems like an adolescent who acts 20.
It’s like a pedophile’s dream date. Especially since Jeff—if he is a pedophile—hardly has to work to make it happen. Hayley says her life plans include “sleeping with all the right men.” She teasingly flashes her sports bra at him. She invites herself to his house.
Checking out the samples of his work on the walls, Hayley asks Jeff how many of his models he’s slept with. “Most of them are underage; I could go to jail,” he says, not really answering the question.
Hayley mixes screwdrivers for the two of them. “They teach us in school that at a man’s house we should never drink anything we haven’t mixed ourselves,” she says. Then, while she cavorts in a demure striptease on the couch, urging Jeff to take her picture, his eyes glaze over, and he crashes to the floor.
When Jeff comes to, he finds himself tied to a chair. Hayley reminds him that the advice about mixing your own drinks cuts both ways. Now it seems Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf have switched places. The predator—if he is a predator—has become the prey.
There are some back-and-forth moments between the two of them, with Jeff trying to wheedle, threaten and beg his way to freedom while Hayley taunts him with a “How does it feel?” interrogation. But what happens from then on, and Hayley’s intentions toward Jeff, are best left to the viewer to discover. Suffice it to say that she’s studied up on certain surgical procedures and plans what she calls a little “preventive maintenance.”
Hard Candy is essentially a two-character play. Besides Hayley and Jeff, the only people we see are the coffeehouse clerk, Jeff’s next-door neighbor (a contrived and thankless walk-on by Sandra Oh) and one person who arrives after the action is essentially over.
On second thought, “two-character” is a misnomer. “Two-actor” is more like it, because Hayley and Jeff aren’t really characters; they’re a writer’s constructs put in place to represent two sides of a revenge fantasy. This puts a burden on Wilson and Page to hold our attention while playing symbols rather than people and delivering speeches instead of dialogue. Page (who was actually 17 during production) does particularly well. Hayley is more of a fantasy, a screenwriter’s idea of an avenging angel/demon.
Director Slade uses off-center camera work, bordering at times on downright sloppiness, to keep us visually off-balance and to emphasize the shifting advantages in this face-off between the two antagonists. It’s an effective strategy, a kind of sleight-of-camera that finesses some of the script’s more implausible developments.
In the end, we know little more about Hayley and Jeff than we knew at the start, and the movie leaves us with some unanswered questions: What did he do? How did she know? But Slade and his actors keep the tension high, and the questions don’t come to mind until after the credits roll.