You’ll have one hand covering your eyes and the other cradling your s*****m during “Hard Candy,” a shrewd blast of torture-comedy that packs the queasy punch of a botched vasectomy. Think Ben Stiller had it bad during the grimace-inducing opening scenes of “There’s Something About Mary?” Think again. In the words of the film’s ball-breaking teenage vigilante Hayley Stark (brought brilliantly to life by Ellen Page), “This is nothing.”
“Hard Candy” manages to be both timely and timeless. The former is represented by its creepy, unsettling story of Internet pedophilia, a vile-yet-growing phenomenon that fills television and newspaper by-lines on a distressingly regular basis. The latter, Kubrickian quality of “Hard Candy,” which favors close-up faces over action (think “Silence of the Lambs”), assures that the film will age well. It doesn’t hurt that the film also contains the most hair-raising torture scene since Takashi Miike’s “Audition.”
But all the shock tactics in the world don’t amount to a plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters unless applied to complex characters that live and breathe. With simple, color-saturated strokes, director David Slade begins his film with a disturbing chat-room exchange. Using her online pseudonym Thonggrrrl14, Stark strikes up a lengthy cyber-relationship with slick, sick photographer Jeff Kohlver (a stellar Patrick Wilson). As her alter-ego name might imply, Stark is a minor. Kohlver is thirty-two. Enter extreme “ick” factor.
The age-incompatible duo meets at a seemingly benign coffee shop. Kohlver invites his underage acquaintance home for drinks. Kohlver is all capped teeth and immaculate yuppie grooming, a seemingly benign Clark Kent whose veiled seductions reek of decadence. These early scenes up the “creep” factor with dialogue that realistically tiptoes around the true intentions of this illicit coupling. Screenwriter Brian Nelson conjures up the type of flirtatious, teasing verbiage that one might expect an online predator to use – and that a vulnerable, attention-starved target might respond to.
Like the 1996 Reese Witherspoon vehicle “Freeway,” is “Hard Candy” a contemporary take on “Little Red Riding Hood?” Not quite. Once Kohlver takes a swig from a drugged drink, the jailbait craving creep finds himself shackled to a chair and due for a ferocious, brutal interrogation. Wilson morphs from empowered captor to pleading prisoner.
Convinced that Kohlver is responsible for the recent murder of another teenage girl, Page turns from naïve waif into a fierce, furious vigilante hell-bent on revenge. Suddenly, “Hard Candy” becomes “Death Wish” for victimized girls. And its agonizing crescendo is reached with a moment destined to be referred to as ONE HORRIFIC MOMENT. My only beef with “Hard Candy” is that following this excruciating piece de resistance, nothing in its subsequent moments comes anywhere near ONE HORRIFIC MOMENT. When Sandra Oh pops up as a nosey neighbor, Hayley’s sudden transformation from cunning avenger into bungling, unprepared doofus is hard to buy. But “Hard Candy” is still guaranteed to curl your toes.
Is there a serious subtext behind “Hard Candy?” Not really. It’s too sensational and in love with its vengeful wish fulfillment to merit such a distinction. However, as an exercise in grueling psychological suspense, the movie is – literally – several “cuts” above the rest.