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Patrick Wilson as Jeff Kohlver
Ellen Page as Hayley Stark
Sandra Oh as Judy Tokuda
Jennifer Holmes as Janelle Rogers
Directed by David Slade
Regardless of your age or gender, this psychological thriller will get under your skin and make you squirm with an intensity on the verge of being just plain evil.
14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) has been chatting online for weeks with a guy named Jeff (Patrick Wilson), a photographer over twice her age. When they decide to meet in person, they end up going back to his place, and suddenly, things aren't quite what they seem as the purported predator may indeed be the prey.
If there's one movie so far this year that's a better experience the less you know about it going in, then it is "Hard Candy." If you're intrigued by the premise and plan on seeing it anyway, read no further. All you have to know is that it's a psychological thriller about online predators and one such internet encounter gone wrong, and leave it at that.
Even the most stalwart will have trouble not being a little bothered by the opening scene of an Instant Message conversation between two people who probably shouldn't be communicating. One of them is obviously an underage girl and the other is an older photographer trying to pick her up. When they do meet in person, 14-year-old Hayley, played by Ellen Page—actually 18 when she shot this—can't help but be intrigued by Jeff, and flattered by his attention and compliments. As we've learned from Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen," youth doesn't necessarily mean innocence, and Hayley is knowledgeable beyond her years about a lot of topics. She may still be a virgin, but she obviously knows how to use her pubescent sexuality to get what she wants from Jeff, as she flirts nervously. As much as some might be put off by this creepy encounter, there's no way it can prepare you for the thrill ride that follows when they go back to Jeff's apartment for a "photo shoot."
Is Jeff a sexual predator trying to take advantage of the innocence of this young girl or are we merely judging him based on our own views of the internet and what we've seen on the news? These are the questions that will arise over the course of an intense night for both of them, as things turn out to not be what they seem. The ambiguity of their relationship and their past history makes it hard to determine whether the movie was meant as a PSA for pedophiles or as a warning for teen girls about the dangers of meeting strange men online. Most people watching this will have conflicts deciding whom to root for, if it's even possible to side with either of them. This uncertain dichotomy is underlying theme in what turns into a dialogue-heavy battle of wills between two very strong characters, neither willing to give up.
Lumping "Hard Candy" in with the recent spate of gruesome torture films would be a crime, because it's a different caliber of film, relying more on dialogue and pacing to create tension and drama rather than violence and gore. That's not to say that there isn't any--anyone still haunted by the closing scene in Takashi Miike's "Audition" might want to take a pass, even if the gore is mostly implied rather than shown. Despite the dialogue-heavy nature of the film, it's when you're already on edge and unsure of what might happen next when it really starts to screw with your mind by intensifying the pace with more action.
Ellen Page's onscreen charisma is equal to that of much older actresses like Glenn Close or Demi Moore, and she shows incredible muscle by grabbing the viewer's attention and only letting it go when she decides she's done with you. It's almost impossible to not be riveted by her every word and action, showing what an amazing discovery she is. You'll probably be seeing a lot more of her in the next few years.
An unshaven Patrick Wilson breaks away from his normal nice guy roles, playing a vile, arrogant character more along the lines of Cillian Murphy's baddie in "Red Eye." Despite his questionable taste in underage girls, there's a point in the movie where you may start feeling bad for him, and then immediately feel guilty for empathizing with him. Either way, it's a great performance that shows that Wilson has far more range as an actor than he's been able to show in the past. (If you blink, you might miss Sandra Oh in a cameo as his nosy neighbor.)
It's rare that a movie that's essentially two people in a room talking for an hour has the kind of impact that this movie has. Brian Nelson's screenplay could just easily have been done as a stage play, but it's the claustrophobic, nearly colorless, way that music video director David Slade shoots it that makes it so effective. Using mostly extreme close-ups and a gray washed-out look, apropos to the film's ambiguity, he has made a very distinctive looking film. It's almost a shame that there are a lot of moments that will be very hard to watch… but in a good way.
The Bottom Line:
"Hard Candy" is an effective thriller, disturbing not only for its frank look at the subject of online predators, but also because of the riveting onscreen relationship between its two stars that keeps you glued to the screen from start to finish. It will have you questionining whatever you thought you knew about meeting strangers online.
Hard Candy opens in select cities on Friday.