Soft Center
By Justin Stewart

Hard Candy
Dir. David Slade, U.S., Lions Gate

Rape/revenge surely must be the most disingenuous of genres. Most can’t avoid at least hinting at titillation during the first half’s assault, while the ensuing revenge pardons the audience for any potentially worrisome jollies and offers them the one-sided righteousness of seeing the baddie justly punished. This dual gratification has the effect of numbing a viewer’s complex response to both the rape and the revenge. So, if you accept that the traditionally structured rape/revenge movie is inherently dishonest, it might be assumed that the better film of its kind would somehow subvert its genre trappings. Irreversible’s reverse chronology threw a wet blanket on audience righteousness by exhausting the revenge first, giving more moral significance to the shocking rape. But to reward this tactic by calling the film “better” than sick cult pictures like I Spit on Your Grave or Bo Arne Vibenius’s chillingly hushed and atmospheric 1974 Thriller is to judge only on a sterilized scale of moral rectitude—ultimately, a movie’s bounds of decency are defined only by the idiosyncrasies of the viewer.

With Hard Candy, director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson wrongly assume that removing any and all semblance of eroticism and dealing its whole hand from a self-erected moral high ground gives their movie a relevant social worth. Unfortunately, when the hypocritical titillation is removed from the preachy revenge, one is left merely with the latter, as well as the slightest whiff of fulfillment at an ambiguous avenged misdeed and an abortive pedophilic encounter that never even happened.

The tiny cast is headed by Patrick Wilson as Jeff and Ellen Page as Hayley. He’s a photographer with an apparent preference for models and an “age is just a number” disinterest in statutory laws. She’s an internet predator posing as a precocious and vulnerable willing victim (IM handle: Thonggrrrrrl14). Their opening online conversation moves from some childish flirtation to plans to meet at Nighthawks, a local café. This initial meeting, and the moments right after Jeff has lured Hayley back to his modern (circa 1982) home (which suits his design-school prick appearance) with the promise of a hot MP3 bootleg from the other night’s Goldfrapp show, are by far the movie’s strongest passages because of the shaded ambiguity in both parties’ each tic and entendre. These coded interactions could have been teased out for quite some time longer, but instead Hayley promptly slips Jeff a mickey. The screen goes black and when he blinks awake, Hard Candy settles into a tiresome alternation between “shocking” torture and smug lecturing.

It’d be an all too accurate cliché to say that the real torture is inflicted on the audience, not because we have to endure the movie’s drawn-out (though decidedly un-graphic) castration scene but because we’re force-fed this posingly sinister teenager’s endless self-righteous harangues on the evils of child victimization. Nelson’s dialogue can be occasionally appealing in its ridiculousness (“Say please, with a cherry on top… one you just had to pop”), but more typical are the teary-eyed, finger-wagging pleas, as Page all but turns to the camera to tell anyone who has ever spent a lonely minute on a site of ill repute, “Stop, don’t do that to yourself. Stop, don’t do that to yourself…” (A stale, cowardly swipe at Roman Polanski might get some knowing laughs in the theater, but music video director Slade’s “kill yr idols” irreverence feels almost unforgivable when one considers his movie’s worthlessness in the face of the vaguely like-minded Repulsion or Death and the Maiden.) As the movie devolves, Nelson and Slade grow higher on the fumes of their sanctimony, even giving Hayley an “I am every little girl” speech to ensure that their daring condemnation of pedophilia reverberates well beyond their characters’ world.

Page’s performance has been praised for its cunning and maturity, and her Daria-intoned sarcasm and pop culture literacy do seem to accurately nail that peerless arrogance of the mid-teen years. But if movies like Thirteen have taught us anything, it’s that bratty “realistic” teens don’t necessarily make appealing feature-length film companions. The unintended effect of Hayley’s unamusing piled-on attitude is that sympathies shift to Jeff even before her extreme tactics clumsily begin to broach the question, “Does he really deserve all of this?” In a thankless role, Wilson is given little to do but spit and grimace. His clean, smart appearance is a twist, the humdrum implication being that these monsters take on all shapes.

Hard Candy could have been a lot of fun, but its baffling ability to take itself so seriously lets the movie down. There’s probably more to be gleaned from an episode of Dateline’s breakthrough hit series, To Catch a Predator, in which internet perps are secretly filmed in their homes, luring and eventually being visited by their prey, who turn out to be a camera crew. The show is appalling and plenty righteous, but supposed castration has nothing on being so mercilessly shamed on national television, pedophiles apparently being the only element of society wholly undeserving of sympathy. That Hard Candy undeniably makes claims to something worthier than NBC’s show, and the underground classic rape/revenge movies, is its own fatal misjudgment.