I guess “Hard Candy” is a good title. But there’s nothing sweet about this queasy, nasty little thriller (produced by Paul Allen’s film company), which wants to do a number on the audience and succeeds quite well.
It begins with a flirtatious online chat and evolves into a meeting at a coffee shop. The man is 32-year-old Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer. The girl is another story – an illegal one, as Hayley (Ellen Page) is 14 years old and looks it.
Impulsively, she agrees to go over to his house. They mix some drinks – hard liquor, not hard candy. And here something happens that changes “Hard Candy” from a TV movie-of-the-week about a creepy pedophile to Grand Guignol.
Hayley, it turns out, has her own scheme in mind. And after she drugs and binds Jeff, she makes him suffer mightily for crimes he committed in the past. Or did he?
This is one of those mind-games movies that limit its playing field to two people (Sandra Oh has a one-scene appearance, but that’s about it) and a single set. Hayley and Jeff go at each other with logic, pleading, ridicule, and eventually some physical torture.
We won’t go into detail about the latter, but let’s just say it’s meant to hit home with a presumed sex offender. Hayley makes Jeff (and the audience) go through it, step by excruciating step.
Screenwriter Brian Nelson, a veteran of TV, has written the kind of heavy-breathing, not-quite-real scenario that often ends up off-Broadway. The story could never really happen – is any 14-year-old quite this ingenious, this capable or this lethal? – but the two people play out a symbolic dance, rendered in chewy language.
As though to cover over the static nature of the situation, director David Slade uses a hard-edged, super-slick style that emphasizes close-ups and makes the actors work. It effectively tightens the screws.
Patrick Wilson, the other guy in the “Phantom of the Opera” movie, is certainly icky enough as Jeff. But the film belongs to the astounding Ellen Page, who dominates this film like a cat with a half-dead mouse in its teeth.
Evidently Page was 18 when she made the movie, which lessens the achievement only slightly. She looks 14, and she navigates the emotional turns and physical punishment with dexterity.
This is a creeped-out film. It’s more one-sided and less ambiguous than it thinks it is, but while it’s on screen, it undeniably makes you squirm. Is that a recommendation? Take it however you want.