At once dreary and elegiac, Candy offers a story you’ve seen before. That story concerns the fates of two loving, lost addicts, as they seek solace in one another as much as in their drug of choice, here, heroin. The opening credits sequence, wherein Dan (Heath Ledger) and his beauteous girl Candy (Abby Cornish) spin on a fairground ride, their bodies alongside those of little children, smiling, sweet, pressed by centrifugal force against the sides of the ride, evoke the giddy early moments of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Much like the young hero of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups, they look hopeful and vivacious, their childishness charming. Unlike Antoine, however, they are duly condemned by the generic demands of their film.
The cut from this introduction to a typical turning point doesn’t bode well for the film, directed by Neil Armfield, who also adapted Luke Davies’ novel. Dan’s voiceover sets his perspective as the film’s: “When I first met Candy,” he lilts, “Those were like the days of juice, when everything was bountiful… Birds filled the sky and great kindness flowed through us.” So he fools himself. As Dan and scraggly Schumann (Tom Budge) sit at the kitchen table while Candy looks on, pushed up against the refrigerator in anticipation. Dan cuts her lines as he and Schumann prepare their needles, and she pouts. “I wanna try it your way this time,” she says. Though this section of the movie is titled “Heaven,” it’s clear that such a notion is profoundly terminal. Emulating her man, Candy becomes his metaphor, the embodiment of his need and his loss, the emblem of his descent.
Within minutes, her end is in sight: as she soaks in a tub, Dan slouched into the wall beside her, Candy nods away, gurgling bathwater. Valiant and panicky, Dan leaps into the tub, shouting commands to his buddy (who suggests an ambulance is the proper course here), eventually resurrecting her his way. “You’re back, you’re back,” he says tearfully, as her eyes flutter and she gazes up at him. Her face pale and eyes rheumy, Candy is grateful to return, her savior also her lover and her guide. She sees in him—so he imagines—her future, immediate and bright and original. “That was beautiful,” she murmurs. What she doesn’t see is what you do, that Dan is, in Schumann’s words, “a follower, Candy, not a leader.” A would-be poet, just as she wants to be a painter, he has no vision, only craving.
Candy goes on like this, one close call after another, the junkie’s life described as if new, for it is, of course, for the junkie. “We wanted to share absolutely everything,” Dan’s voiceover explains, “Especially the best bits.” And so they shoot up, have sex, explore each other’s surfaces and imagined depths. They get their drugs from an organic chemistry professor and fellow user named Caspar (Geoffrey Rush). He’s “like the dad you always wanted,” says Dan, “The one who lets you have lollies and fizzy drink.” He extends their credit, ensures their high, and occasionally suggests they quit. His instruction is obvious to anyone who’s seen a junkie movie, but unknowable to a junkie: “You can stop when you don’t want to, when you want to stop, you can’t.” The beautiful children imbibe, then enter a car wash, their every sensation a delight, as the water and soap and wipers all bestow joy by the moment. And then they itch.
Dan explains that they get by on odd bits and money from Candy’s generous dad Jim (Tony Martin). He worries about Dan’s prospects: “When are you gonna do something?” he Jim wonders when Dan asks for money, again. “You’re not a teenager anymore.” And yet Jim sees his little girl looking happy and fragile, hoping that her judgment isn’t as flawed as it seems. Her mum, however, has a sense of the disaster in the making. Elaine (Noni Hazlehurst) is ferocious immediately, trying to protect both her daughter and her husband from the noxious boy before them.
Candy’s next step appears to be her choice, though of course it isn’t. As they’ve hocked most all their possessions, she sees that her most saleable aspect is herself. She informs Dan, who’s waiting in the car, that her nana’s ancient, precious paint box isn’t enough for the cash they need. “I’ll be back,” she sighs, suggesting that the pawnbroker has offered to “work something out.” She goes inside, the camera remains on Dan’s face, the windshield filthy and close, his eyes not so much wide as vague. It’s a step he wasn’t anticipating and yet also was. Candy’s return to the vehicle is brusque; she lights a cigarette and looks appropriately disgusted. “Yes,” she declares, “I fucked him. He gave me 50 bucks. He stank.” Though Dan thinks he’s sorry, even says as much, he’s pushed to the back of the frame, looking on her as if she’s magical and also horrifying.
On their good days, Dan reads poetry aloud, little perfect nuggets of e.e. cummings: “here is the deepest secret nobody knows / here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky in the tree called life /which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide.” It sounds pretty, and they imagine they share a secret so deep, but really, the film proposes, they’re hopeless, bound to one another in increasing selfishness and defeat.
In the next two sections (conventionally titled “Earth” and “Hell”), Dan and Candy argue (“You’re my fucking problem, you’re a waste of space”) and make up, then argue some more. They live in a one-room warehousey flat near a train track (so an ominous rumble might inform their scenes together). When Candy suggests that he start working like she does (“You hock your ass”), he’s startled, or would be, if he had the energy. At first he protests that he’d get AIDS, but when she points out he would use condoms, just as she does, Dan finds another logic: “You’re heterosexual, you’re just doing what you’re good at anyway.”
Thus addiction and guilt shape their existence, until the inevitable, life-threatening crisis shakes up their routine. When at last Candy’s voiceover interjects, it’s only when she’s off-screen, and Dan responds to her aftermath. Her poetry is acute, more moving than his might have been, and it’s written all over the walls of their “country” house, a last-ditch effort to break free of their past. “The day’s last rays of sunshine cruised like sharks,” she writes, “We squelched in the mud of our joy, I was wet-thighed with surrender. Then there was a gap in things and the whole world tilted.”
In this brief, brutal moment of Candy’s voice, the film is almost something new. But she exists, at last, beyond Dan and beyond Candy. While the movie features what you’d expect—grand performances, sensitive and moving—it also lapses into its own banality. And so Candy slips away, a symbol rather than a character, a sign of limits and reiterations, both Dan’s and the movie’s.