Hard Candy (2005)

2009 #72
David Slade | 100 mins | TV | 18 / R

Hard CandyHard Candy’s director David Slade has followed this up with vampire horror with 30 Days of Night and will shortly unleash an altogether different kind of horror by joining the ranks of evil that are bringing us The Twilight ‘Saga’. His feature debut may be a two-hander between a teenage girl and middle-aged man, but in its own way it’s just as much a horror movie.

Actually, that’s mainly a review-opening conceit: one tense torture-ish sequence aside, Hard Candy is a consistently surprising thriller about real-world horrific things rather than depicting them itself. To reveal too much of the plot would spoil it, though I imagine most viewers will already be aware of the first big turn: the real intentions of Ellen Page’s 14-year-old protagonist. It follows this wannabe-surprise (“wannabe” because it occurs too early to escape description in most plot overviews) with a series of equally playful reversals. The viewer’s never quite sure of any fact about either of the two characters; never quite sure if they’re being genuine or at any moment will undermine their present emotion with the revelation it’s just an act, an attempt to fool the other. Arguably it’s played this card too often come the end, and perhaps it could have stood being a more efficient 80 minutes rather than pushing on to 100.

The other assertion in my introduction is also disingenuous, because there are more than two characters. It’s basically a two-hander though, reliant for great stretches on two people in a room conversing and attempting to outwit each other. It’s more exciting than that might sound — the action is far from limited to chatter. Such a production rests entirely on the skills of its two leads, and fortunately both provide excellent performances. Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson is perfectly cast to alternate charming and sleazy, though Ellen Page — pre Oscar nomination for Juno — is the stand-out. Actually 18 at the time, she’s more than convincing as an older-than-her-years 14-year-old, selling the character’s confidence but also revealing an occasional vulnerability and uncertainness that just about keep proceedings the right side of believable. Still, plausibility isn’t exactly the film’s strongest point. There’s enough that one follows it, with the more implausible sections wisely saved for later on, by which time we’re drawn in and accept that Page’s character is clever, cunning and above all prepared.

Other characters do intrude however, and it’s almost a shame when they turn up: it breaks the perfect technical accomplishment of a locationally-limited two-hander for little more than another few minutes of screen time. That said, it’s the arrival of the constantly-referenced former love that finally provokes the ending, a worthwhile climax to a film so caught up in its to-and-fros that anything less than the influence an external factor providing a conclusion would’ve been a disappointment. The neighbour character, on the other hand, feels a little too inevitable; an obvious attempt to ratchet up the tension that arrives too late. It seems Slade thinks it’s as compulsory as the audience might, and dispatches with it quickly… just not quickly enough.

Story aside, Slade’s direction makes for an interestingly shot film. There are many close-ups, in which characters and action are often calm, but then there are occasional explosions of flashy camerawork, usually during acts of violence or other sudden bursts of plot-driving action. The grading is similarly fiddled with during these sections, emphasising the primary-coloured walls of the house that make for an interesting backdrop. Indeed, the walls are used to particularly good — if, arguably, obvious — effect throughout, such as slowly panning across a red wall so that it fills the screen during the lengthy castration sequence.

Hard Candy is sort of a morality play, though it’s hardly a moral that requires increased awareness. Primarily it’s a revenge thriller though, and with limited settings and characters it makes for an admirably intense — if occasionally credibility-stretching — and pleasantly unusual entry in the genre.

4 out of 5

(Originally posted on 7th February 2010.)

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