Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Conviction Before Trial, The Slow Execution Of "Justice" In Hard Candy.

The Good: Good DVD extras, Exceptional acting, Well-written and directed
The Bad: Not at all entertaining, Deeply disturbing, Utterly gruesome
The Basics: Terrifying but exceptionally well-made, Hard Candy is a tough depiction of torture that does not need to be viewed, certainly there is no entertainment value here.

Every now and then, I encounter something as a reviewer that I find so horrific and grotesque that my kneejerk reaction is to pan it into oblivion and strongly recommend against seeing it. The thing is, there are some works which are terrible and gruesome that objectively viewed are absolutely brilliant. In other words, there are movies that are well-assembled and set out to be disturbing in their themes and structure, but are so well put together, so well accomplish what they do that they become something other than the entertainment they claim to be. The best example I have of this is Requiem For A Dream, which does what it sets out to do with a high level of quality, but is so over-the-top as to be utterly without value or need to see. There are some things we understand, but we don't need to subject ourselves to and as conscientious reviewers, I try to help steer people away from.

Tonight, I add Hard Candy to that list. Much like The Passion Of The Christ, Hard Candy is created with a simple premise and illustrates graphically torture. But where Mel Gibson used flails and blood, writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade use psychology and innuendo to torment a man and the audience for the better part of ninety-five minutes. I am bouncing between a high and an average rating because qualitatively, Hard Candy has much going for it, but I know I will not recommend it and hopefully, those reading this review will decide not to subject themselves to this film.

Hayley Stark is a fourteen year-old girl who meets photographer Jeff Kohlver on the Internet. After chatting on-line for three weeks, they meet together in the daytime at a coffee house. Jeff, who is thirty-two, is clearly intrigued by Hayley but seems committed to remaining on the right side of the law in his dealings with her. However, Hayley essentially invites herself over to his house under the guise of listening to a bootleg recording from a concert she wanted to go to. Against his better judgment, Jeff brings Hayley home with him.

At Jeff's house, Hayley begins to assert her control more, fixing the pair screwdrivers and putting her music on. When Jeff prepares to take photographs of Hayley, he falls unconscious. Jeff wakes up tied to a chair. Hayley seems unnaturally sober and admits to drugging him. Confused, Jeff begins to try to figure out what is going on while Hayley begins to ask questions about the girls that Jeff has taken photographs of. After she accuses him of being a pedophile, Jeff realizes Hayley is not playing and soon her interrogation turns violent as she realizes that Jeff will not confess to the wrongs she believes he has done.

What follows is essentially a fourteen year-old girl preaching, interrogating and castrating a 32 year-old man as she administers justice, believing he has killed a local girl who has gone missing.

The plot pretty much says it all because there is no moral to Hard Candy. Instead, this is a character study of two antagonists. It is a collection of brilliant lines and amazing artistry and a cold sense of brutality that is disguised as righteousness. And it is agonizing for its length and all of the pauses and the fixed stares.

Hayley is quickly established as a girl who is in control and she sees the world in very black and white terms, as is appropriate for a fourteen year-old. She has judged Jeff guilty before they meet in person and every moment she is on screen, she is acting so that by the end, the viewer has to ask themselves just what truths she might have let slip amid the stories, potential lies, and accusations. She is a vigilante and a girl with a vindictive streak.

Jeff, sadly, comes across strangely human and part of what Hard Candy does exceptionally well is raise questions without answering them. But in watching Jeff get tormented by Hayley, the viewer has to seriously ask themselves whether or not there is a crime Jeff could be guilty of that deserves the torment he is suffering. In other words, in a civilized nation where most people can acknowledge that nothing justifies torture and was founded on a principle of abhorring cruel and unusual punishment, how can we find such acts at all entertaining?! Only a monolithic fourteen year-old living in a world of binary logic would believe that somehow tormenting an alleged (not even accused) pedophile somehow balances the scales of justice for the crimes he allegedly perpetrated. Jeff often seems far more human than Hayley does.

In fact, in Hard Candy, the only crime we witness Jeff make (though I refuse to say anything about the last half hour of the film) is transporting a minor (without parental permission) and the crime of stupidity. The stupidity comes in bringing a fourteen year-old into his house (which is not, technically, a crime). Jeff makes a mistake in bringing a minor home, but even that is not illegal (just somewhat witless). It remains believable and in character because Jeff is moderately famous for photographing teenage girls in somewhat risque positions.

The point, though, is that while audiences might be polarized about Hard Candy and be tempted to side with either Hayley (the vigilante) or Jeff (the victim in this context, even if he is potentially a victimizer), the struggle is far from entertaining. It is quickly executed as a psychologically devastating battle between a girl in far too much control over a helpless man. So, unlike something like the masterful hour of television "Duet" (reviewed here!), which involves a man being interrogated for an hour, Hard Candy is not so much an interrogation, but an outright depiction of torture and psychological torment. And it lacks a social message, so instead of being especially clever, it is just cruel.

That said, the acting is absolutely amazing. Ellen Page is brilliant and cold as Hayley Stark. She has a masterful ability to present long speeches and voice the cold, logical voice of righteous vengeance. And in the opening moments of the film, she is brilliant at playing shy and mousy. She telegraphs a few of the reversals, but in the lone scene where her character is out of control, she is spot-on. Moreover, in moments when Jeff breaks loose and there is a physical altercation, Page is amazing at displaying pain and exertion. And whenever her character is lost, Page plays is with her full body and eyes. She is haunting and truly great.

And she plays off Patrick Wilson perfectly. Wilson spends most of the film tied to a chair or a metal table. Yet, even so confined he gives a performance that is active, terrifying and deeply empathetic. Wilson makes us believe completely in Jeff's reality as he is tormented and waits for Hayley to kill him.

On DVD, Hard Candy comes with two commentary tracks and honestly, the only reason I even have a debate in how to rate Hard Candy is that I watched the film three times. After the first time, I told myself, "I will not subject myself to that again!" But, I decided, I would do some work and put the commentary track on, so I didn't have to watch it, but I could listen to people talk about it. The commentary track with Slade and Nelson is informative and insightful and actually discusses the ambiguity and technical aspects of making Hard Candy. The commentary track with Page and Wilson is pleasantly lighthearted and in fact contains the best comment that can be made on the film. When Hayley knocks Jeff unconscious to transfer him from the chair to the table in order to perform surgery on him, actress Ellen Page says, "Why don't we stop now, I don't want to watch more." Everyone involved in the film knew they made something controversial and disturbing and I appreciated Page admitting she didn't want to see what came next. There are deleted scenes and featurettes on the making of the film and its controversy, but they add little that the commentary tracks did not already cover (the only thing the commentary tracks do not answer is how old Ellen Page was when Hard Candy was shot).

Hard Candy is a brutal film without catharsis and while I can live with that, there is a cruelty depicted on screen that is not entertainment. We are lessened by watching it and trying to experience it as such and for that reason I cannot stress enough that this film ought to be avoided.

For other works with Ellen Page, please visit my reviews of:
Whip It
X-Men III: The Last Stand

8.5/10 (NOT Recommended!)

For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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