After flirting on the Internet for weeks, Jeff (Patrick Wilson, "The Alamo") and Hayley (Ellen Page, Kitty Pryde in the upcoming "X-Men: The Last Stand") have decided to finally meet. Trouble is, he's 32 years old and she's 14. After bringing Hayley back to his place for drinks and seduction, the situation takes a turn for the worse when the young girl reveals that she's more clever than she originally seemed, beginning a day of agony and torment for Jeff.
"Hard Candy" has one of those calculated attention-grabbing premises that delighted pushover Sundance Film Festival audiences, where it played over a year ago. This is provocative material, pointing a spotlight on sexual predators and their prey, possibly leading many parents to go home and hug their teenage children extra tightly, and shut off all their access to the Internet. So there's one positive to be found.
"Candy" is the directorial debut for music video filmmaker (aren't they all?) David Slade, and what ultimately trips up the film is Slade's habitual visual overindulgence. The picture is aiming for a runaway mine car ride into hell, where Hayley exacts revenge on Jeff for her own safety and for every girl pursued by a pedophile; "Death Wish" for the Jane magazine crowd. However, the film isn't reliably ingenious like the average thriller. Perhaps originally structured to be performed in a theatrical setting, Brian Nelson's script keeps the characters talking feverishly and the locations at a minimum, leaving Slade to come up with his own cinematic treatment to tell this unconvincing story.
Slade makes use of a dazzling primary color design for Jeff's house to keep the location interesting, and employs almost nothing but tight close-ups for the acting. The framing does create the claustrophobic nightmare quality Nelson is writing, but inspiration is soon drained completely out of the film by an old enemy: the shaky-cam. Whenever a moment of violence or action occurs between Haylie and Jeff, Slade goes crazy with open-shutter photography and handheld camerawork, unnecessarily attempting to conjure up intensity with cookie-cutter artifice instead of piercing originality. It robs the film of any potential terror.
The visual ideas kneecap the performances as well. While Patrick Wilson oozes reptilian menace and carefully measured lust as Jeff, Ellen Page's performance as Hayley is the film's single biggest miscalculation. Page's acting is puckered with indication; the actress bounces off the walls trying to convey the character's power of mind and willingness to use blunt force to keep Jeff in his place. By shooting Page so tightly at almost all times, Slade amplifies the actress's limitations, and soon pushes her into pure shrillness. Toward the end of the film, the hope that maybe Jeff should come out as the victor in this struggle passes through the mind, which directly contradicts Nelson's script design for Hayley's heroism. Wilson might be playing a rapist of teenagers, but after 10 minutes of watching Page contort and stammer in such a loud, self-aware fashion, he doesn't look like such a bad guy after all.
Near the end, "Candy" heads into a lengthy genital torture sequence (male viewers will be crossing their legs in the film's second half), which should be this monumentally satisfying act of revenge, but it comes off as a hopeless horror gimmick in a picture with all the dramatic and logical impulse of a latter "Friday the 13th" installment. In the end, Slade dramatically hammers home the Red Riding Hood imagery, while Nelson's script makes her into a sort of Batman figure for underage instant message vixens. And while at this point the film gets completely absurd, at least Page has finally stopped acting.
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