Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


October 28, 2014


Chewing Hard Candy

Rob wonders if lead characters have to be likable.

I love to ask people who've seen Gone Girl who they think the villain is. Amy is the obvious choice at first. And then there's a pause. And then..."" Tricky, right? That's because relationships are complicated and no one ever really figures them out. The infinite terabytes of personal baggage that connect us to and repel us from each other are also completely open to subjective interpretation. What you find unforgivable in a relationship is hardly anything shocking to someone else. We take, we give, we overlook, we forget. Sometimes it's not that easy. Most times it's worth it. These quirky little indiscretions pale in comparison to the totality of human existence, everything we've ever done or will do, so why not roll the dice?

But why does that change when it's someone else? I find Mr. Fincher's film to be an excellent examination of the way we judge the romantic pairings and domestic squabbles of our friends and family. We've all done it, so let's get that out of the way. It's easy to be an outsider, a supportive shoulder or ear. Things seem so simple when it's not us, right? Gone Girl challenges audiences to pass judgement while simultaneously challenging their moral perspective. Who's to say, really, who's right and who's wrong? Whose actions are forgivable? Justified? It's the question that, weeks later, still sticks with me. It also reminds me of David Slade's Hard Candy.

For the uninitiated: The 2006 indie thriller stars pre-fame Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson as Jeff and Hayley. Jeff's a mid-thirties photographer. Suave. Charming. Hayley is, well, a fourteen-year-old girl. After a few weeks of salacious online chatting, the two meet up at a coffee shop and play coy. She's fumbling and stuttering, eager to make an impression. Jeff licks his lips and circles for the kill. Hardly a meet-cute. He wows her with the kind of easy compliments that make us cringe. He promises to "wait four years" for her while she playfully warns him not to make his move today. By the time she accepts an invitation back to his house for some drinks and a bootleg MP3, we're shouting at the screen. How could this girl be so foolish? Who is this monster? Are we supposed to enjoy this? How could a filmmaker commit this trash to celluloid? 

But as always, it's more complicated than that. Jeff starts to feel hazy after a few screwdrivers. Something's off. Hayley strips for a photo session, but Jeff can't focus. Then he collapses. When he wakes up strapped to an office chair, we finally get it. Turns out Jeff has a history. Missing girls. Photos locked in a safe. Hayley's been watching him, and she's here for revenge. 

What follows is a nauseating airing of all the dirty laundry that Jeff thought he'd tucked away forever. While he's incapacitated, Hayley enjoys free run of the house. She digs through his computer and subjects him to a terrifying psychoanalysis. We realize that this quivering, shy teenager is actually a vicious predator on the hunt. She's smart, unrelenting, and organized. Oh, and she's brought some surgical textbooks. All the horrible things you're imagining? They happen. Look out for the most inventive uses of plastic wrap and Lysol spray you're likely to see for some time. 

The real power of Hard Candy is the dynamism with which Mr. Slade shoots his one-set play. Jeff's house starts as pretentious bachelor pad (isn't that feng shui obnoxious?) and ends as a metallic, airless prison. The wonderful use of stark, bold color timing makes the flirtatious scenes warm and the torture scenes ice-cold. The kinetics of the camerawork are worth mentioning, too. Long shots emphasize the physical distance between the two characters while they share a frame, and an impossibly shallow depth-of-field only adds to the claustrophobia of close-ups. Shaky-Cam is thankfully used as it should be: to emphasize unease and panic. Truly engrossing work, all for under $1 million US. 

Page and Wilson go at it alone, with only a brief interruption by Grey's Anatomy's Sandra Oh as a nosy neighbor. Mr. Wilson does well; he's just creepy enough to be believable, but not so much so that he loses our sympathy when Hayley's doing her worst. My sources (the Internet) tell me that he's starring in no fewer than ten upcoming films. Rightfully so. Good on 'em. But the unstoppable star of the show is Ms. Page. At seventeen, she manages the kind of strength and vulnerability that elude most cardboard starlets today. Why doesn't anyone use her like this anymore? Why has she been relegated to the background of X-Men: Days of Future Past? Did Juno typecast her that badly? Wait. It's the androgyny, isn't it? Shame on Hollywood. What does the sixteen-year-old male demographic need a smart, dynamic actress for anyway? They've got Shailene Woodley and whoever else. Start directing, Ellen. That'll show 'em.

Without spoiling it, I can say that the most intriguing thing about Hard Candy is that its characters are both irredeemable. They both do and say vicious, horrible, unforgivable things. But again, who's to judge? Who's got the moral high ground, the paedophile or the vigilante? While Hayley shames Jeff for inviting a young girl over for booze and sex, Jeff gives the standard Freudian excuses. He was sexually abused as a boy, la dee da. There's even a quick legal debate over the power of Hayley's case should she be caught: "If every girl who's ever been abused sends me five dollars, I'll be able to afford the best fucking lawyer in the world." But does that justify her crimes?

At times, Hayley seems didactic and naive; there's some on-the-nose dialogue that could have been disastrous. But that's the rub: She's wrong too. It's a brilliant subversion of our expectations. Even the formal aesthetic qualities keep the moral perspective ambiguous (there's nearly no music to tell you how to feel). When Jeff breaks his chains long enough to gain the upper hand, we discover he's hardly the victim. Reviewers who find the film shallow and preachy missed this part: Hayley is not the sympathetic protagonist. There is no protagonist. Hard Candy presents a complicated relationship between a dynamic (eek) couple and trusts its audience to pass their own judgements, should they dare to do so. It's easy when it's not us, right? 


Post a Comment