At the midpoint of the last decade, America was at a dark moral nexus. After the trauma of 9-11, the country re-elected an administration that was maintaining secret prisons and practicing torture. American fascism was no longer a left wing fantasy but a cold, hard reality. Torture was justified with a self-serving rationale: America only tortures terrorists and they deserve it.
Hard Candy, originally released in 2005, is very much a product of its time. The film is best understood within the context of the toxic political atmosphere in which it was born.
Hayley (Ellen Page) is a precocious 14-year-old girl who meets Jeff (Patrick Wilson) in an online chat room. Her chat handle is ‘Thonggrrrl14’; he is ‘Lensman319’. They arrange a face-to-face at a local coffee shop where Jeff, with gentlemanly aplomb, wipes chocolate from Hayley’s lips and buys her a t-shirt. Jeff reveals that he’s a photographer with a home studio.
In fact, Jeff is a pedophile and possibly a murderer who uses the Internet and his home studio to lure unsuspecting teenage girls. When Jeff takes Hayley home, she spikes his drink. Jeff wakes up tied to a chair. Hayley is now wearing Jeff’s glasses and blazer.
Jeff: Why am I tied up? Is this how you play?
Hayley: Playtime is over.
In a dramatic character shift, Hayley drops her coffee shop nymphet persona. She’s now an avenging angel with a taser and scalpel.
In an interview included on the new Blu-ray release, screenwriter Brian Nelson describes himself as a “father of daughters” who likes smart girl protagonists like Buffy Summers. Director David Slate tips his hand early when Hayley is clad in a red hoodie—she’s a modern Little Red Riding Hood and she’s out to dispatch a wolf.
Page is an excellent young actress who’s stuck in this film with a one-note character. Hayley is a self-righteous sadist who eventually straps Jeff to a steel table for a castration. “Why do they teach Girl Scouts things like camping and selling cookies?” Hayley asks while brandishing a scalpel. “Castration is much more useful.”
Wilson brings a full range of emotions to his skilled depiction of Jeff: anger, regret, and terror. At one point Jeff tells Hayley about his first sexual experience: when he was ten, his four-year-old female cousin, naked and wet from a bath, jumped on his back and tickled him. It became a game between the two cousins until they were caught and severely punished. The story provides insight, for Jeff is sexually frozen—he’s still looking for young girls that he can control. Hayley listens to this story, then mocks and ridicules him.
Jeff: Who are you?
Hayley: I’m every girl you ever looked at, touched, screwed, and hurt.
Hayley is unpalatable because her lines don’t ring true. The quote above doesn’t belong to a 14-year-old girl. It’s part of a macho revenge fantasy by a 50-year-old male writer with a teenage daughter. If Diablo Cody had written the screenplay, Hayley might have been more human and sympathetic.
The political implications of the film include a feminist dynamic, but it doesn’t play well. In Luc Besson’s brilliant La Femme Nikita as well as Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer we get female assassins who kill out of necessity. Nikita and Buffy are interesting because they’re connected to the human condition—they both have friends and lovers. Torture is inconsistent with their moral nature. In Hard Candy, Hayley is merely a cipher, she represents a brutal idea. We never see a real person beneath the façade.
Hard Candy manipulates the audience into a loser’s choice: we must pick between the helpless pedophile strapped to the table or the teenage sadist who tortures him.
The film raises a larger issue; torture is symptomatic of a society that’s given up on liberal democracy, due process of law, and common decency. When the use of torture is accepted, a moral threshold has been crossed and only barbarism can follow.
Hard Candy is an unintentional allegory of America’s recent crisis of faith. After 9-11, things that were once unacceptable suddenly became the norm. Out of fear and anger America tortured prisoners and invaded foreign lands in a paranoid delusion over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. Hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths followed.
In the nihilistic fantasy world of Hard Candy, Hayley succeeds where the American right failed. Hayley finds Jeff’s kiddie porn stash. She finds photos of a murdered girl in his camera. She gets an admission of guilt. Hayley finds the WMD.
John Cheever once wrote, “How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?”