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Hard Candy

And now for something of a departure for us here at NTS Towers. We usually like to have a hook for our retrospective pieces, but the fact is that this sadly little-known film was brought to mind by the sight of one of its leads fighting the good fight in Watchmen. This earlier moment in Patrick Wilson’s career is more than deserving of rediscovery…


Hard Candy is the story of professional photographer Jeff, and the three most uncomfortable hours of his life. The film opens with an instant messenger conversation between the lensman and an unknown third party, arranging a meeting at a local coffee shop. When the action moves, it becomes obvious that something’s not right, with Jeff’s date Hayley being obviously barely into her teens. The pair’s flirting leads them back to Jeff’s impressive apartment, but he blacks out shortly after sipping a cocktail Hayley prepares for him. He wakes bound to a chair, and finds the girl standing over him, knife in hand…

This description sounds as if I’ve summarised most of the action, but the main narrative hook of the film is the mystery over one particular incident. It’s obvious from the outset that Jeff has made some rather dodgy decisions, and it’s not long before Hayley’s ‘investigation’ confirms his paedophilic tendencies beyond any reasonable doubt. The question is whether he’s guilty of the specific crime she suspects him of, in the form of the disappearance of a local girl. And she’s willing to go to any lengths to get the answer out of him.

Treat the film as an acting contest between the two leads, and it’s a draw. Both Jeff and ‘Hayley’ are utterly convincing and brilliantly performed, although the extraordinary nature of the latter’s character meant that Ellen Page received the lion’s share of the credit from contemporary reviewers. Page hit the big time a couple of years later with Juno, but her performance in that film was actually slightly ropey in places, compared to the continual top-notch work she puts in here. Just watch the change that comes about when Jeff’s not there to see her- the calm mask slips, and she becomes frantic, worrying about how long her interrogation is taking and hastily improvising to put the next part of her plan in place. It’s important not to overlook Patrick Wilson’s contribution, however, with the success of the film dependant on his ability to make the audience sympathetic to Jeff, despite what Hayley accuses him of. His approach is perfect throughout. His behaviour in the coffee shop has a synthetic suaveness to it, with flashes of unease evident at just how flirtatious Hayley is, and there’s a magnificent and believable mixture of panic and controlled calmness when his captivity becomes evident. The two actors are aided by an extremely intelligent script, which never requires the characters to say or do anything that artificially feeds the development of the plot. This is typified by a moment when Jeff believes that he has correctly diagnosed the reasons for Hayley’s behaviour, and tries to gently council her our of her actions. It’s entirely obvious that he should try to achieve freedom based on his deductions, and just as inevitable that his captor would laugh in his face.

It’s something of a cliché to say that you have to watch a film twice, but Hard Candy delivers a markedly different experience on both the first and second viewings. On the original screening, the audience will find themselves mainly identifying with Jeff, helpless in the face of events and trying to defend and brace themselves against whatever unknown horrors life ahead. On the second viewing, with the pattern of events firmly lodged in mind, you find yourself seeing events from the perspective of Hayley, appreciating how she moulds the encounter to her script and stealthy deploys her arsenal of psychological weapons to devastating effect. It’s tempting to say the given its two-handed nature, the script would make an excellent play, but the film as it stands benefits from well-directed close-ups and an unusually intelligent use of computer aided colour adjustment. It’s never so obvious that you’d notice it unprompted, but the digital removal of some of the more vivid tones from certain scenes adds greatly to the atmosphere, and gives the film a superbly distinctive identity. I was about to say that Hard Candy isn’t actually a violent film, but this thought was immediately replaced by images of a sequence in which Jeff briefly regains mobility and is choked into unconsciousness by Hayley using clingfilm (make sure you keep watching her for the couple of seconds of footage after Jeff’s backed out- Page is BRILLIANT here). What I actually meant to say is that it isn’t gory. There’s only one offensive by either of the parties that draws blood, and the film pointedly doesn’t let us see a thing. The picture is constructed in an almost perverse way, with what would normally be the subtext explicitly brought out in the dialogue and the details of the plot conveyed through hints and suggestion. During the café scene, Jeff spots a university medical textbook in Hayley’s satchel, and she quickly bluffs her way out of the situation by claiming that she’s proofreading for her academic father. The implication is that Hayley is actually at university, making her planning and self-control rather more credible. It’s a very subtle hint, and the viewer’s realisation of what’s going on is dependant on their knowing that Page is significantly older than the character she’s playing.


Despite the sharpness of its dialogue, with many debating points delivered head-on, Hard Candy’s themes and values are unexpectedly difficult to fully appreciate. When reviewing the production for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw regarded the film as an attack on the lynch mob mentality shown towards paedophiles in the mass media. Although there’s credibility in his remarks about how it’s impossible to feel easy watching the potential victim of such a predator exacting revenge on her own behalf, it’s hard to avoid feeling that Bradshaw is somewhat oversimplifying the message of the film. The thing is, Hard Candy isn’t about paedophilia, at least not in the way the term is usually used. The film has a lot to say about the social trend that finds infantised women attractive, and regards that trait itself as acceptable, with Hayley picking apart at her leisure the way women remain ‘girls’ long after boys have ascended to manhood. Hard Candy reminds the viewer of the hypocrisy of mainstream sexual politics, with tabloid newspapers regarding it as normal and proper to run pictures of topless teenagers adjacent to stories attacking as sick monsters men who have lusted after girls only a few months younger. This contradiction, however, is only part of the tapestry of social issues that are of concern to the creators. Hard Candy exists as a blazing attack on the “torture porn” approach of recent horror titles, throwing into sharp focus the dubious nature of Hostel and other such thinly veiled snuff films. This nasty little sub-genre consists of showing the protagonist, usually young and female (all the better for the audience to letch over her distress) being assaulted by a more powerful assailant- precisely the reverse of what transpires here. Publicity material for the film dismissed concerns over the violent content as nothing more than the sort of treatment that women routinely receive in half-a-dozen cop shows, only attracting comment because a male victim is featured. It’s effectively a feminist deconstruction of its genre, and is enormously rewarding to watch.

The brilliance of Hard Candy is best shown by looking at the film/novel it’s frequently compared to, Audition. Ryu Murakami’s book features an outwardly similar premise, with a widowed businessman using a rather dubious pretext to seek a younger second wife. He quickly becomes infatuated with one of his candidates, a woman who has overcome a childhood filled with abuse, but ‘Asami’ is not all she seems. At the end of the story it’s reveal that she’s in the habit of engineering a betrayal of trust by her suitors, and then using their actions as a pretext to indulge her fetishically-motivated compulsion to amputate men’s feet (a result of the traumas inflicted by her stepfather). Although Audition reverses the genders of the participants in a standard kidnapping story, its simpler moral tones make it a much weaker piece. Asami is an uncomplicated monster, while Jeff is a much more rounded creation, despite a slightly greater obscurity about how his moral weakness came about. There’s some subversion of the sexist norm in transposing the genders of a female victim and male predator, but otherwise Audition is a perfectly conventional tale. In contrast, Hard Candy’s masterstroke is to flip the standard situation on its head while keeping the morality of the participants the same. Typically the female victim of a clichéd slasher flick is somewhat foolhardy for placing themselves in that situation, while Hayley is guilty of some similarly eccentric behaviour, by going out and seeking to extract confessions from men she suspects of murder. Jeff is (potentially) a rapist and a murderer, yet is viewed in an almost sympathetic light, the audience’s dislike for him being balanced by the “not proven” status of the accusation against him and his physical powerlessness in the face of Hayley’s assaults.

The film was a labour of love for the creators, with budget kept under $1million to prevent studio interference in the script. It made its money back on domestic sales, and took $6million globally. Interestingly, it proved particularly popular on DVD in Britain- presumably the subject matter struck a chord, even if people weren’t willing to walk into a cinema and ask for two tickets for the film about a guy getting his balls hacked off. I’m sure you can see where this is heading, but there are far worse ways to spend a fiver…

About this entry


I’ve just seen this movie. Once. And I’m still confused as to why Hayley is seeking out her revenge. I mean, on a personal level, what’s in it for her? I may have to watch it a couple more times to understand because it’s maddening to not know. She can’t be just an insane do-gooder out to exact revenge on phedophiles because then the characterization just wouldn’t make sense.

By mer
August 04, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

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You’re right that the ideas of her as being out for revenge or motivated by pure morality don’t appeal. She’s too dispassionate in what she does, being more concerned with getting the job completed than any real interest in what Jeff may or may not have done. I think that Hayley’s lack of motivation is a consequence of the bulk of the film being constructed from Jeff’s perspective. It’s an important plot point that he ends the film realising that knows absolutely nothing about her, and so that means that the viewers can’t, either- there are only a few seconds of footage where we get to see her without his presence.

By Julian Hazeldine
August 05, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

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It’s also a major factor in the appeal of her film. Yes, Jeff’s a sick bastard…but Hayley’s a psychopath. In a conventional Hollywood flick she’d be the killer in some high school horror thing. Which is what makes Hard Candy so appealing to me - its messy, candid morality.

I don’t think you can call what she does simple do-gooding - again, ‘violence as cure’ is a Hollywood convention and Hard Candy has more going on in its head than that. If she didn’t have this excuse to attack, she’d find something else. The film actively paints her as just as damaged, deluded and dangerous as Jeff - without ever resorting to ‘Daddy used to hurt me’ back stories for either of them.

What makes her do what she does? Her nature, however that came to be. Just like him. What you’re getting is two animals fighting in a sack, but coated in the veneer of so-called civilisation.

Andrew's picture

By Andrew
August 10, 2009 @ 2:18 am

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The movie itself was excellent 9/10 stars easily. I didn’t grasp why Hayley had any ties to Donna. Other then that, the Hard Candy had a great plot and was suspenseful in all the right places.

By Kiran
September 26, 2010 @ 5:11 am

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