It’s just so easy to blame a kid, isn’t it?
— Hayley (Ellen Page)
Hard Candy begins with typing. Two chat-roomers write back and forth, flirting, abbreviating, teasing — lensman319 and thonggirl14. They agree to meet, and from here, the film allows slightly less abstract shots: not just screens or keyboards, but faces, in tight close-up, the space around them evacuated of detail. In a café called Nighthawks (and yes, the set is way stylish), she orders chocolate cake. He wipes a smudge of icing off her lip, his finger intrusive, too large in the frame.
David Slade’s film is like that, discomforting, pressing at collective nerves exposed by any number of recent “investigative reports” on child predators. Certainly, the threat is real. And certainly, anxiety among parents is justified. But Hard Candy is not about that. It’s about revenge, made sensational and creepy and calculating.
“You don’t really look like the kind of guy who has to meet girls over the internet,” smiles Hayley (Ellen Page). That is, Jeff (Patrick Wilson) looks ken-doll straight. He reads her, impressing himself with his knowledge: she likes John Mayer and Coldplay, she “desperately needs, wants, longs for more chocolate.” Gee, she looks sweet, how could he know all that? When he offers her a bootleg MP3 from a Goldfrapp concert, she goes along in his so-impressively “cool” Mini-Cooper to his Hollywood Hills home. Here he shows her some of his work — he’s a photographer, girls mostly, though he also does some “environmental” imagery.
Hayley spends a moment feeling inadequate compared to Jeff’s first love, a girl named Janelle (Jennifer Holmes), whose photos he has enshrined on his bedroom wall. Appearing just after Jeff has proclaimed his full understanding of the “legal boundaries” in place to protect underage models, these pouty, perfect Lolita images provide a palpable ewww factor, especially when he explains that he doesn’t still love her, but only “how simple things were back then.” Momentarily pensive and performing vulnerability, Jeff here establishes that he deserves to be schooled, harshly. While there’s some seeming complication in his prettiness — he doesn’t vaguely resemble the hardcase mug-shots appearing repeatedly in news reports about child abductions and murders — it hardly makes him sympathetic or a point of identification. Hard Candy doesn’t confuse viewers or make you pay for “inappropriate” sympathies, or even question Hayley’s judgment against Jeff, once pronounced. It only reinforces what you already “know.”
Hayley’s plan kicks in quickly: she mixes screwdrivers and invites him (begs him, really) to take pictures of her. Jeff thinks he’s gotten incredibly lucky. Which means he’s not so bright or assumes a privilege typical of his class and gender. Or both. The gimmick in Hard Candy is that Hayley has come to punish Jeff for his sins. Though he protests mightily that his interest in girls is strictly professional, that he had no intention of seducing Hayley, or even that he understands her step-by-step breakdown of how online predators set up their victims by learning about the music or the movies they like. Once Hayley has Jeff drugged (“I don’t feel so good,” he says as the camera blurs to take his perspective) and tied up in a wheelie chair (so she can transport him from room to room, though how she got him into the chair is another, left-off-screen question), he’s driven to try all sorts of cajoling — whining, berating, demanding, and pleading.
Beyond her immediate-seeming rage at Jeff, whom she accuses not only of soliciting her, but also of killing a missing local girl, Hayley becomes an abstract embodiment of little kids wronged by skeevy adults. But even as Page turns in a ferocious performance, Hayley is not particularly compelling. Rather, she’s another sort of fantasy (“Is this some teenage joke?” Jeff asks), an angry girl who comes with a plan, her own castration kit, and a red hooded sweatshirt (again, the film is not subtle). Asserting that she means to perform “preventative maintenance” on Jeff’s testicles, Hayley searches his home for hard evidence of his crimes (his “stroke shots,” so grisly they remain out-of-frame), her hunt rendered in frantic cuts and handheld rushes, as if her frenzy is yours.
Throughout the ordeal, Hayley and Jeff take time to discuss and self-defend, as tends to happen in two-person, one-location pieces. This exchange ranges from technology to stalking to (topical) definitions of torture. Jeff guesses she’s looking for her own daddy’s affection. Hayley provides Predator 101 re-education: “Just because a girl can imitate a woman does not mean she’s ready to do what a woman does,” she says. He protests that she shouldn’t be reading his letters to Janelle, but Hayley informs him, “Nothing is yours when you invited a teenaged girl into your home.” Including, it seems, your storyline. While Hayley arrives with an abstract psycho-girl motive, Jeff appears to change. Pushed by her visceral, squishy-sounding surgery, designed to make (male) viewers cringe, Jeff gets a rudimentary arc, from villain to victim to maybe really scared repentant.
As unsatisfying as Jeff’s shifting self-image may be, the more acute problem of Hard Candy lies in the simultaneous simplicity and dodginess of its moralizing. Inverting the gendered terms of abuse — as in I Spit on Your Grave and other rape-revenge films — doesn’t alter essential power dynamics or explore cultural frames and foundations for desires, whether licit or illicit. The targets here are too easy to make anyone rethink assumptions. The photographer of children participates in the problem even if he hasn’t touched or killed anyone. The girl would seem not to be responsible by definition of her age, and yet, she’s so brutal and conniving that the film remakes her into a participant as well. You don’t need to choose identifications or feel responsible for taking pleasure in the imagery. The film preserves your distance.