I like scary movies. It’s ironic because growing up, horror films were the one form of media violence I didn’t gorge myself on. You can place the blame for much of that firmly on my being a wuss when I was younger. Granted, I’m still something of a wuss today, but my fears have become more specific and built on sturdier foundations. I’m scared of wasps because the past three or four summers have all seen me bombarded by bee stings simply for trying to the mow the lawn. The stupid bastards shouldn’t build their nests underground if they don’t want to be disturbed! Likewise, I hate those park rides that shoot you up and drop you because…well… those things just suck.
With horror movies it was just that I hadn’t developed an appreciation for suspense, and I had yet to learn that there were scary movies that were then just an hour and a half of jump scares. You can thank The Misfits for my conversion into a horror buff; Glenn Danzig’s punk rock combination of horror imagery and catchy tunes even your Mom would wind up humming opened me up to a whole new world of cinema. Low behold I found things I like. Movies built on psychology and social issues. Movies clever enough to know that they’re better off notshowing the gore and that our minds are far more potent than any amount of gratuitous violent.
In other words, I discovered films like Hard Candy.
Some might not call Hard Candy a horror film, throwing it instead into the genre of suspense. I hate the “suspense” genre though. As I see it, if a movie is scary, then it’s a horror film and Hard Candy is a seriously frightening film. What makes it brilliant is that it shouldn’t be.
The bread and butter of horror films, the very reason the genre works at all, is because it plays on the latent fears of normal people. It puts fictional people in situations we ourselves would never want to be in. Hard Candy, on the other hand, is about two people who are in no way, shape, or form normal.
On the one hand you have Jeff (Patrick Wilson). Jeff is a pedophile (an ephebophile tecnically). When the film opens we see him chatting online with Haley (Ellen Page), a fourteen year old girl. We then watch as he and Haley meet in person, in one of the most brilliantly disturbing sequences you will ever watch in a film. This is the sort of thing that happens in real life and as the audience witnesses its progression we already know where it’s likely going to end, especially when Haley returns with Jeff to his house for drinks.
Then the movie flips our expectations on their head. Jeff is a sexual predator, but he’s also the prey. Haley we soon learn is no starry-eyed victim, but rather a cold and calculating avenger. She drugs Jeff, and with him incapacitated, begins interrogating him about his involvement in the disappearance of another teenage girl. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse as Jeff tries over and over again to deny not just his involvement in the girl’s disappearance, but also the truth about what he is.
Haley in turn strips away the layers of justification that Jeff relies on to exist. For every excuse he gives, she is there to tear it apart. The process is sometimes amusing –Ellen Page is nothing if not the master of the well delivered quip-and often horrifying. One sequence in particular will leave you (especially if you possess a Y chromosome) utterly disturbed.
The brilliance of the film is the fact that the audience, whether they’re male, female or somewhere in between, should have no sympathy for Jeff. Haley might be on the tweaked side (“Teenager girls don’t do this!” Jeff tells her at one point) of the spectrum but her actions are still clearly a form of justice, brutal as it may be. She says as much herself when Jeff demands to know who she is.
“I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed,” Her role in the film is simple. She’s the vengeance that so many victims never get.
Jeff on the other hand is just a man and is portrayed as being such. He has hopes, dreams, and fears outside of the shallow desire to not get caught. He’s haunted by the same sorts of things that anyone might be, namely a failed relationship with a (legal) woman. Outside of his obvious deficiencies he’s a normal guy, which is surprisingly realistic. In the real world, most pedophiles aren’t trench coat wearing slime balls living in sleazy dungeons. They’re not Freddy Kreuger. They’re your next door neighbor or a child’s soccer coach; they’re the last person you’d expect. It’s their normalness, that ability to blend in, that makes them so dangerous.
And it’s this realism, this inherent normalcy that makes Jeff such a fascinating character. As much as you know he’s a monster, as much as he’s the obvious villain, if you were to take away that one trait he wouldn’t be evil. He would be you. The movie portrays this so well that the audience, even knowing what he is, can still feel for him on some level as Haley hurts him. It can make Hard Candy an uncomfortable watch, but for all the right reasons.
It’s worth saying that the acting is flawless. Patrick Wilson, a horribly underused but versatile actor, is perfect as Jeff. I’ve seen him sing (The Phantom of the Opera), I’ve seen him as a superhero (Watchmen), and now I’ve seen him as a Humbert Humbert. Likewise, Ellen Page pulls off the best performance of her career. If all you’ve seen her in are quirky films like Juno and Whip It, you’ll be shocked to see how terrifying she can be. The subtle nuances of her performance, from the tone of her voice to the slight shifts in her eyes and face, impressed me throughout. Put succinctly, the girl can act.
Praise must also be given to the camera work. As a general rule, I hate it when a film uses shaky cam. It ruined a lot of the action scenes in Batman Begins and is an unfortunate crutch of too many filmmakers trying to make their movies look more chaotic. That being said, Hard Candy puts it to good use, namely by limiting it. It only shows up during scenes of genuine chaos and disorientation.
Overall, Hard Candy is a practically perfect movie and an ingenious look at the psychology of pedophiles. It manipulates your emotions and expectations almost constantly. And while it can be a jarring experience, and most certainly not for everyone, it’s also a triumph for anyone interested in a film to make you think.
It’s also pretty good if you’re just looking to see someone who really deserves it have bad things happen to them.