I remember seeing the trailer for Hard Candy and thinking that it looked like it could be an intense little thriller. Boy howdy, that was an understatement. David Slade’s first feature film is nothing less than a nerve-racking, mind-blowing, and, at times, excruciatingly uncomfortable cautionary tale on par with Takashi Miike’s Audition, as well as one of the best written character studies this side of a David Mamet film.
The film opens with an internet chat session between two unseen characters that set up a meeting at a local coffee shop. We next see Hayley (Page), a tomboyish teenage waif, moaning with delight as she bites into a piece of chocolate cake. A voice behind her calls out her name, and Hayley turns to see Jeff (Wilson), a man more than twice her age, who has accepted her invitation to meet. Hayley smiles nervously, chocolate still smeared across her lips, and the suave and creepy Jeff wipes it away with his finger and tastes the cake for himself. The two sit and chat, with Jeff seemingly feeding on Hayley’s naiveté, and Hayley appearing to enjoy the man’s attention. It’s clear that Jeff knows what he’s doing, and has done this before, but it’s also clear that, with this date, he is simply testing the waters. It takes the insistence of Hayley for Jeff to bring her home to his place, and that’s when Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf take a ride back to his cave, and the line between predator and prey is blurred beyond recognition.
With sharp dialogue, a character-driven storyline, and a single setting for the majority of the film, Hard Candy has the feel and structure of an expertly written play, but, with Slade’s electrifying direction, and urgent, in-your-face editing, the film marries the finer points of theater to the visceral energy of cinema, and the result is one of the smartest and fiercest thrillers I’ve seen. Ellen Page is a revelation as Hayley, imbuing her character with a sense of angry determination and viciousness that is only occasionally betrayed by moments of physical and mental weakness. The way Page’s Hayley shifts from potential victim to bloodthirsty victimizer is positively jarring, but there is also a complexity to the character that goes deeper than dialogue and can be credited to Page’s subtle body language, in which her silence speaks volumes. Patrick Wilson is equally as good as the lecherous Jeff. He manages to do the impossible, and that is eliciting sympathy for a completely unsympathetic archetype. We don’t know how bad of a person Jeff really is, or whether or not his pleas of ignorance and innocence ring true, but, as much as I hate to admit it, there were moments where I almost found myself rooting for him as this film has no clearly defined hero or villain; just two damaged people doing damage to each other. It’s an anti-morality tale for a dark new world.
Lionsgate presents Hard Candy on a DVD worthy of it, packed with two commentary tracks, an extensive making-of documentary, deleted and alternate scenes, and much more. The commentary with Page and Wilson is my favorite extra as it is both entertaining as well as informative, and offers a lot of insight into how the actors prepared for, performed, and coped with their respective roles. It’s a great set all around, and definitely worthy of a spot in your collection.