The specter of pedophilia is raised in "Hard Candy," an intense, well-acted film that deals with its alarming subject matter in an audacious way. Like it or hate it, there's no denying it hasn't been done quite like this before.
Our suspect is Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a handsome 32-year-old who meets a 14-year-old girl named Hayley (Ellen Page) on the Internet, followed by an in-person conversation at a coffeehouse. She seems every inch a giggly, flirtatious teenager, flattered and giddy to have a cute older man so interested in her. They go back to his house to listen to some MP3s of a cool new band that he has downloaded: He has done his homework.
At his house, though, the tables turn and it becomes apparent that Hayley -- in truth a precocious, intense girl bent on revenge -- has entrapped Jeff. She knows what he is and she plans to execute a particular bit of cruelty on him that will deter him from approaching an underage girl (or perhaps anyone) ever again.
As proud as the movie is of this development -- the sequence is the film's piece de resistance, at least in terms of editing and suspense-building -- I don't want to spoil it for you. Use your imagination, though. Whatever you'd consider doing to punish a pedophile, it's probably close to what Hayley has in mind. (If you've come up with something worse, then I am frightened of you. Please do not contact me.)
The movie, written by Brian Nelson and directed by David Slade, both in their feature debuts, is largely a two-character psychological thriller, Jeff and Hayley playing cat-and-mouse in his stylish, well-appointed home. Patrick Wilson more than redeems himself for his flat performance in "Phantom of the Opera" with this turn, which is rawly emotional but not over-the-top. Jeff is so likable, and his plight so desperate, that we question whether he is even guilty of what Hayley has accused him of. There are moments, in fact, when we sympathize with him more than with his would-be victim.
Ellen Page, a striking young actress who would seem to have potential, is a problem at first because the film seems to take itself too seriously to jibe with Hayley's dark sense of humor; her remarks are cheesy and supervillain-esque. But in time the balance adjusts and the tone of the movie begins to work with Hayley's attitude, not against it. Slade faces the difficult task of keeping things interesting despite having only two characters, and he manages it with solid acting and sharp camera work.
Still, at 103 minutes, the film is too long. A movie this simple, this uncluttered, this narrowly focused ought to clock in at around 80 minutes, don't you think? The emotional and psychological points reached by the characters meet their zenith long before the film has ended, and there's not much more for the story to do after that. Cut this thing down to size and you've got yourself one dickens of a thriller.