Sunday, June 11, 2006

Movie Review: "Hard Candy"

Starring Patrick Wilson, Ellen Page and Sandra Oh
Directed by David Slade

Official Web site

Just to get it out of the way up front, “Hard Candy” is basically an exploitation movie, and it’s not an easy watch. The very subject matter of the material will clearly deter some people from seeing it, while others may be put off by some of the unlikely machinations of the story. But as a script that centers around a suspected pedophile being put through a tortuous ringer for his alleged misdeeds, it’s likely that there are some people out there that will quietly cheer its boldness.

The movie, directed with a nice visual touch by David Slade, could just as easily have been a stage production. It features only five characters, with just two of them garnering any significant screen time. Most of the action takes place in one location and centers around an arranged meeting between Hayley (Ellen Page), a young teenager, and Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a 32-year-old photographer. As the film opens, the two are exchanging some rather adult conversation on an Internet chat room, agreeing to meet in person. As recent news programs such as "Dateline NBC" demonstrate, the disturbing ease in which some of these inappropriate encounters take place is alarming.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries at a cafe, the action shifts to Jeff’s stylish and almost immaculately clean home. Demonstrating a rather remarkable intelligence for someone who claims to be just 14, Hayley chats up Jeff innocently at first, but after he passes out from a drink she makes for him, he wakes up tied to a chair and realizes he’s not in control of the situation anymore.

Hayley believes Jeff to be a pedophile – a murderous one, at that – a charge he consistently and desperately denies. She proceeds to play mind games with him in an attempt to get him to trip up, maybe say something he shouldn’t, while also searching his place for possible clues or evidence to his guilt. Psychological and physical torture ensues.

But to the film’s credit, while talked about, very little bloodshed or sexual imagery is shown. Of course, keeping an “R” rating might have had more to do with that decision than anything, but it works to the movie’s advantage – particularly in one scene that will have you squirming in your seat.

Without a doubt, the success or failure of a movie structured such as this is extremely dependent on the two lead performances. You have to buy into these characters from the very start, in order to believe there could be a hidden side to them. On that front, Wilson and Page do an exceptional job. Page especially impresses as a teen who can play sweet and innocent in one scene, then calculated and masochistic in the next. It’s a very challenging and substantial role for such a young actress to be able to sink her teeth into (in contrast, she is largely wasted in “X-Men: The Last Stand”).

While the screws are effectively tightened during the movie’s second act that keeps the proceedings ambiguous, things start to come undone in the third act, with a debatable denouement. Even aside from its finale, the one almost guaranteed outcome of this movie, like it or hate it, is that it will get you talking. And when it comes to shining a light on the seemingly growing problem of dangerous dealings between adults and underage youths on the Internet, a little conversation is a good thing.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for disturbing violent and aberrant sexual content involving a teen, and for language.)

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