Who's the hunter and who's the game? "Hard Candy" turns the tables on a sexual-predator plot.
"Hard Candy" is a psychological thriller as chilling as a cold, serrated blade to the jugular. Combining the unpredictable character dynamics of "Sleuth," the high-stakes physical menace of "Misery" and the corrosive sexual politics of "Oleanna," the film is a perfectly cut jewel of tension.
Agreeing to meet for coffee after several online chat sessions, Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) seems impressed by her new friend, photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson). He's gentle, charming, handsome and, although 32, up to date on all of 14-year-old Hayley's favorite bands. She's coltish, headstrong, highly intelligent, wary of older men who approach underage girls through chat rooms, but flirtatious.
He treats her respectfully, demonstrating the warm personality that puts novice models at ease. An erotic tension develops. Before long they're in his stylish home, discussing his portfolio -- he specializes in young girls -- and having a drink.
We may think we're a step ahead of the story, waiting for Jeff to entrap Hayley, but the script is two steps ahead of us. Hayley knocks out Jeff, binds him and launches a mock trial in which she is prosecutor, judge and executioner. The distinction between predator and prey continues to blur through a parade of reversals as the film builds to a shattering climax.
Neither Hayley nor Jeff are what they seem, and they act out an ambiguous and disturbing revenge drama in which our allegiance never settles on either character for long. Since we know nothing of these characters except what they've chosen to show each other, it's difficult to decide whether Jeff is guilty as charged. Even if Hayley has a just claim to vengeance, can revenge undo the damage a criminal has caused? Will the suffering inflicted by Hayley return to haunt her?
"Hard Candy" makes expressive use of light and colors: The walls of Jeff's home are painted in dramatic tones a photographer would choose. Director David Slade, in his feature debut, makes the most of each room's grief-tinged blue, cautionary yellow and dangerous red. His camerawork is ominously close and intimate, lending a raw and edgy feel even to innocuous conversations.
Acting a film almost entirely in intense, claustrophobic closeups is a challenge, and Page and Wilson anchor the film with mesmerizing performances. Their characters are themselves accomplished actors, proof that people who look fully normal to others have the potential to commit unspeakable deeds.
A far cry from the current rash of "torture porn,"Hard Candy" is an ingenious, masterfully executed spin on nightmares of sexuality and violence. While conscientiously avoiding gore, it poses challenging questions about revenge. How does one go on living with the knowledge that almost everyone -- yourself included -- can turn into a murderer? The film ends with justice of a sort, but the screen resonates with warning tremors for the future.
Rating: R for disturbing, violent and aberrant sexual content involving a teen, and for language.