Hard Candy is about a 14-year old sociopath (Hayley) who baits and traps a 32-year old ephebophile & closet-pedophile (Jeff), and then plays vicious head games with him before “fixing” him once and for all. But how she ends up doing this isn’t what the viewer is led to expect, and the big debate among reviewers is whether or not the film cops out. I think it does, but that it ends up working for the drama rather than against it.
The film is dialogue-driven, and builds to the crux of Hayley castrating Jeff in his own home. It’s as perversely thrilling as the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, the acupuncture torture in Audition, and the S&M in Blue Velvet. But in a way Hard Candy one-ups all of these on account of its non-graphic nature. It’s not as pornographic as the others: we don’t see any gory business going on down in Jeff’s nether regions; what’s left implied disturbs more than the sight of explicit surgery. Screening tests resulted in a lot of walk-outs, and it’s indeed a long, brutal torture scene to sit through.
But: It turns out that Hayley faked the castration. After bravely taking us where cinema hasn’t gone before, the film loses its nerve. And it weakens in another way, by becoming a chase-around-the-house thriller until it reaches its climax on the roof where Jeff hangs himself. Throughout its first three-quarters, the story stood on the strength of sharp dialogue and a cruel “operation”. Now it forsakes indie-style drama for action-thriller sequences, and it even drops the ball with dialogue. Hayley’s final line — “I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, and killed” — is cheap, and the sort of self-righteous vindication we expect from the Hollywood crowd.
Yet on subsequent viewings, I began to see a new film, in which those defects become assets. Hard Candy plays as an enacted domination fantasy, whereby a guilt-ridden man is tormented by a teen fantasy figure, taken to the brink of the worst punishment imaginable, culminating in his “noble” decision to kill himself. Yet in the background, you still feel the brutal horror of the first viewing experience, when you really thought Jeff was losing his member. The film works on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy simultaneously, or at least for me.
Like the Todd Solondz film Palindromes, Hard Candy is also a morality puzzle, refusing to anchor us on safe ground. We can no more decide between pedophilia and vengeful sadism than between pro-choice and pro-life; either side is hopeless. Solondz and Slade gives us a young teens driven to extremity — as Aviva engineered the death of an abortion doctor, Hayley forces a pedophile to kill himself. We obviously condone neither action, yet are drawn into empathizing with demented thirteen- and fourteen-year olds who have warped ideas about justice.
Fascinating is how Hayley’s vengeance rests on a hidden contradiction. At one point she lambastes Jeff: “Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she’s ready to do what a woman does.” She spends the rest of the film mocking herself, of course, for as Andrew Criddle points out: “If Hayley’s youth and inexperience make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff’s lover, then her youth and inexperience surely make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff’s self-appointed judge.”
Jeff makes the same mistake from the other direction. As Hayley starts digging into his scrotum, he protests: “A teenage girl doesn’t do this.” Her retort: “I’ve seen your idea of what a teenage girl should do with her day, so don’t even start.” They’re both right, both wrong, and trapped in paradoxes that feed off each other.
Hard Candy is so many things: a brilliant dialogue drama, a brutal revenge thriller, a weirdly enacted domination fantasy, and a morality paradox. The performances of Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson are crucial to the film’s success, and they are first rate.