Misery scared the piss out of me. My parents were loving and somewhat controlling of their firstborn, but that didn’t stop me from perusing the Stephen King stacks in the library next to my junior high, and though I eventually read all the man’s books with varying reactions — he can certainly spin a yarn, but character development is often woefully lacking — it wasn’t until stumbling upon a battered paperback copy of Misery that I came close to putting the book in the freezer just to get it out of my sight. And then, of course, I saw the movie, featuring a terrifying performance by Kathy Bates as the psychotic Annie Wilkes, who comes across James Caan’s Paul Sheldon, a famous novelist who’s run his car off the road, and proceeds to take him back to her house, tie him up, keep him as a prisoner for weeks, and brutally torture him as way to motivate him back into writing. The film had its flaws, to be sure, but the scene in which Annie hobbles Paul by crushing his ankles with a sledgehammer was the kind of unnerving image I couldn’t get out of my head for years. And though everything worked out thanks to another enjoyable deus ex machina from King, the tense relationship between Paul and Annie that drove the film made it worthwhile. There was little external action to fall back on, just the interaction between these two characters, the captor and the prisoner. I’m only laying all that out there to say that, for the most part, Hard Candy makes Misery feel like a sunny day at the fair. With cotton candy. And horsies. Director David Slade’s film is a harrowing, gripping, deeply disturbing one, unsettling to watch but impossible to ignore.
Brian Nelson’s script wastes no time: A screenview of an online chat between an obviously teenage girl and an anonymous user named “Lensman319” shows her flirtatiousness and his gentle persistence, and they agree to meet at a nearby restaurant later that day. Slade then cuts to black, as he will on several more occasions to divide the story, and we see 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) in the cafe, moaning over the taste of a piece of chocolate cake, when Jeff (Patrick Wilson) approaches and calls her name. He’s a photographer in his early 30s, and though wary of spending too much time with Hayley in public or saying anything that could be construed as dangerous (he warns her that he’ll have to “wait four years” for her), they still talk for a while. There’s no establishing shot of the cafe, and most of the angles are medium shots or closer, often defaulting to extreme close-ups. Everything is big, uncomfortable, and unavoidable, shot wide and close like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, which used such natural framing to ground its brutality in stark reality. Slade’s taken a page from the same book, laying the groundwork for later scenes and beginning to build the tension that will soon increase in dramatic leaps. Hayley invites herself over to listen to a concert bootleg, and Jeff acquiesces to her pleas, so they pile into his Mini and head for his house up in the hills above Los Angeles.
[And it is here that I offer my first and, hopefully, last spoiler warning for a review. The confounding nature of the film makes it impossible to discuss without revealing minor plot points that some viewers might wish to discover on their own, which I fully respect.]
Hayley is in awe of Jeff’s house, colorful but minimalist, the walls adorned with shots of Jeff’s work. She mixes them some screwdrivers and persuades Jeff to take a few photos of her, throwing a CD from her bag into the stereo and jumping onto the couch, lifting up her shirt. The thumping techno beat comes as a shock after so much silence: The film is virtually free of music, a touch of realism that adds to the uneasiness in the pit of your stomach. Jeff snaps a few photos but then reels dizzily and passes out, only to awaken tied to a chair with Hayley standing before him. She confesses to drugging him, and he groggily asks Hayley if this is how she wants to play, to which she responds, “Playtime is over. Now it’s time to wake up.” This is when Jeff starts to panic, and I know exactly how he feels. The film takes a dark, disturbing turn from a possible tale of kidnapping into a fierce psychological battle between two strong-willed characters with no clear end or easy resolution in sight.
However, Hard Candy is different from other two-person set pieces in that Hayley’s as much an emotional monster as Jeff. She is cold, calculating, and willing to mentally and psychically torture Jeff, whom she suspects of being involved with the recent disappearance of a young local girl named Donna. Her first interrogation of Jeff is a startling, engaging scene that fires on all cylinders, sliding from the bright primary colors of the prologue to a slick, blue-tinted, high-contrast look, coasting from one tonal scheme to the next and back again with Hayley’s oscillations from teasing to threatening. Hayley begins to ransack Jeff’s house for evidence of his wrongdoings and sexual predilections, and she begins to emerge as an oddly sympathetic character, despite her actions that go beyond vigilante and land squarely in amorality: At one point, Jeff promises to go to the police if she withholds from performing a particularly heinous surgical operation on him, but Hayley refuses, even after suggesting that such a barter could be arranged. She apologizes for teasing him, saying that he won’t be able to talk his way out what’s coming to him. Despite having evidence and a confession, all but guaranteeing serious legal repercussion for Jeff, she chooses to handle things without the law. Hayley’s not even that likable, and is only loosely identifiable as the protagonist because she’s standing next to Jeff, a silver-tongued pedophile who may or may not be guilty of kidnapping Donna. This is the twist that pushes the film over the edge: The hero is far from good, and the bad guy might not be guilty. Jeff is unquestionably horrible, but even after his sexual sins are brought to light, Slade manages to make us sickly relate to him out of victimhood. It’s unnerving to find yourself hoping that the pedophile makes it out OK.
Hard Candy is a resolutely focused film, and except for a brief appearance by Sandra Oh as Jeff’s neighbor, the story belongs entirely to Hayley and Jeff, and to the vicious game of cat and mouse that plays out between them. Wilson is powerful as the tortured villain forced to deal with a hellish version of karma, and Page is nothing short of magnetic as Hayley. The 19-year-old actress has a relatively short resume, but her upcoming turn in X-Men: The Last Stand as the third person to play Kitty Pryde in as many films will undoubtedly help introduce her to a larger audience. Her work in Hard Candy is somewhat reminiscent of Alison Lohman’s faux ingenue in Matchstick Men, but Page fully inhabits the role in her own ways, her awkward body language and passion verging on madness standing out as hallmarks of teenage years.
My only complaint with Hard Candy is that Slade seems too focused on the premise and not enough on actually turning it into a contained story. There a few surprises, true, but nothing that takes the story any further than Hayley’s first turning of the tables, and nothing that carries it above a story of loner justice and into the realm of the personal. Sadly, it’s not until the film’s final frames that Slade hits upon his best image: Hayley in a bright hooded sweatshirt, a Little Red Riding Hood lost in the sad realities of a world where, far too often, the wolf wins.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.
Hard Candy / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()