They met on-line, flickering text made of tiny dots shining on the display. And after a while they figure they might as well meet. Jeff (Patrick Wilson) is an older man, a photographer, and he seems nice enough; Hayley (Ellen Page) is 14, a little naive, but quick and cool and grateful to find someone who'll take her seriously. They meet at a café -- somewhere public, somewhere with other people. He's brought her a gift, and she's touched and a little flirty in her gratitude. After they talk about his photography for a while, they go to his home studio; they'll look at some photos, keep talking. It seems safe to Hayley. It seems like an good idea to Jeff. It isn't.
Directed by video veteran David Slade, Hard Candy may be a high-stakes suspense film with a high-tech story kernel, but it's not actually anything new; what Brian Nelson's script does is create a simple circumstance (young woman goes to the home of a much older man who may not have the best of intentions) and then supplements it with a few twists that slowly, deliberately raise the tension of the piece bit … by bit … by bit, as two characters clash in a conflict that's defined in part by limitations created by the geography of a single setting -- and in part by the limitless possibilities as two people become more and more desperate, with more and more on the line as the clock ticks down.
Much like Sleuth or Deathtrap or
even Cronenberg's The Fly, Hard Candy
whisks you along as firmly as it does thanks to the tightly-bound circumstances of it; a minimum of characters, a
minimum of settings. After Hayley and Jeff go back to his home studio, he offers her something to drink. She offers to
get the drinks herself, because she's been told 'You shouldn't drink anything a stranger makes for you." Jeff
takes notice of her caution and smarts; what he overlooks as he takes a glass from her is that she's a stranger to him.
Hayley, as it turns out, has her own plan for how things are going to go at Jeff's place. Another young girl from the area disappeared not too long ago, and Haley has a theory that Jeff was behind it. If Jeff was involved, though, he'd hardly be likely to say anything without considerable pressure being applied … and Haley understands that, which is why she's made plans to apply considerable pressure. Elaborate, carefully calibrated plans, with far more than one level to them -- as the street saying goes, she's not playing checkers, but chess. And she has some surprising moves and dangerous gambits as she heads for the endgame.
Slade and cinematographer Jo Willems set Hard Candy in a flat, washed-out light that, while artificial, nonetheless feels more real -- or at least more satisfying -- than brighter, more saturated colors might have looked on-screen. Credit should also go to the production team: production designer Jeremy Reed, art director Felicity Nove and set decorator Kathryn Holliday manage to create Jeff's home studio as a real place, while still carefully including touches and moments that help the setting drive the drama, especially when the conflict goes from the psychological to the physical as Jeff and Hayley grow increasingly desperate.
All of the set dressing and décor, however, would be pretty irrelevant without actual actors to fill the space, and both Wilson and Page are up to the task. Part of the enjoyment of the film is in watching Wilson and Page trace the arc of their characters. Wilson's Jeff is warm, worrisome and then terrifying as things unravel. Page's Hayley is immediately sympathetic and then a bit worrisome, as we realize just how far her plan extends, and just how far Jeff will go to stop it. Hard Candy isn't a game of cat-and-mouse; it's a game of mouse-and-cat, and while Nelson's script makes it abundantly clear that the mouse is far more clever than the cat initially thought, it also never forgets that physically, the cat is a hell of a lot bigger than the mouse.
With a film like Hard Candy, there's always the question of if the material -- sensitive elements revolving about sex and youth -- is handled in a way that uses it to drive drama or if it's just there for exploitative and cheap purposes. Hard Candy takes the ethical high road in many places -- while much ado is made of Jeff's photos of young women, we never see them; it's also the more dramatically interesting path to take, as it makes the audience imagine just how creepy and wrong those photos must be.
Hard Candy isn't too high-minded, however; it knows that there's a certain amount of nail-biting fun to be had from locking two desperate people who want different things in a small space with a ticking clock heading to the point of no return. It's no coincidence that Hard Candy is coming from Lionsgate Films, who also picked up similar high-concept, low-budget independent films like Saw and Open Water and the yet-to-be released Right at Your Door on the festival circuit and have a knack for marketing films like this in a way that squeezes the maximum possible amount of box office dollars. Hard Candy's a nice little nail-biter, an un-ambitious but nicely-crafted piece of entertainment that doesn't take long to melt away yet still has a nice sweet-sour mix of tension and thrills.
(For more on Hard Candy, check out our SXSW review, and Jette Kernion's interview with Slade and Nelson.)