Saturday, April 2, 2016

Hard Candy / ** (2005)

Jeff Kohlver is one of the most thoroughly smarmy characters in recent years, and his oppressor Hayley Stark one of the most transparent. Their existence in David Slade’s “Hard Candy” – a movie as unpleasant as its own participants find it – serves to fuel an agenda that would be no more persuasive in the hands of a more skilled filmmaker, because dealing with this subject is a matter of nearly impossible resolution. Sure there are more certainties we can all arrive at when it comes to dealing with a scenario this stark, but what are we supposed to feel in terms of emotional involvement? Are we supposed to care about either person’s strange or tragic history when they convey themselves in a manner that bypasses the grey areas? Seeing them on screen creates just as much of a fascinating conundrum as it does a glaring aftertaste; they are toxic exemplifications of their ideals and yet thoroughly dislikable to the point of sickness. The fact that the characters are portrayed so convincingly by their respective actors only complicates the issue of our involvement.

Here’s an explanation. The movie opens with a 20-something photographer (Patrick Wilson) engaging in flirtatious online chats with an underage girl (Ellen Page), who agrees to meet him in public to see if they have some level of chemistry (mentally or sexually, no one comes to clarify). His eyes shoot seductive glances while hers reflect an experience of forbidden excitement; they know what they are doing teeters on a dangerous edge and yet are unable to turn away from visible temptations, however shallow they may be. Then, when they decide to go back to his place and she offers to mix screwdrivers, he is drugged into unconsciousness and obligatory imprisonment. What is her intention? To psychologically torment him for the dangerous escapades he is engaging in, which may or may not ultimately lead to his castration (she carries around a medical textbook, conveniently, to perform such procedures). And in the thick of that conflict is the confused audience, which is left uncertain of how to deal with this material beyond the inevitability of trainwreck curiosity.

It’s fun to dance on the lines of debatable intentions. A movie carries the possibility of inspiring profound dialogue if it chooses to deal with premises that have no moral certainty. But what we are to make of “Hard Candy” is not only uncertain, but seemingly without redeemable facets. It’s an exploitation of a set of themes rather than a thoughtful consideration of them, and celebrates their austere nature in a stampede of scenes that cause only surface discomfort. And yet it is almost hard to dismiss the movie as a pointless excursion; aside from being a well-made technical achievement, the actors show a remarkable sense of modulation, and deliver dialogue that is sharp and perceptive. Had it all lead to something beyond a feeling of unrelenting nihilism, one could assume this being one of the more well-made thrillers of recent times. What it is instead is a colossal misfire of intentions, and one where the possibilities of redemption seem far too narrow to wonder about credible objectives.

Nearly the full duration of the film takes place within the walls of Jeff’s house – a cold, modern and sterile environment that seems like something furnished by Patrick Bateman’s personal decorator. His presentation mirrors that sentiment; dressed in casual business with his short hair cropped back behind glasses, his is a presence that calls to mind the most classic of underlying creepiness factors, cemented further by a smile that visibly hides ulterior motives. But are his escapades all in innocent fun, however dangerous? The movie doesn’t directly clarify the limits of his nature, but only out of naivety; a man who entertains the company of a young girl in this manner is not innocent of much in the way of impulses, especially if he claims to be a fashion photographer. Never mind. The approach he takes with Hayley starts out friendly enough; they share some chocolate, discuss one another’s lives and bond over music tastes. While regaling her with stories of all the underage girls he has professionally photographed – many of them displayed on his bedroom walls – she opts to progress the danger of the situation by gradually removing her clothes. He runs to retrieve his camera, but is struck with dizziness and collapses. In the next scene, he awakes to discover himself strapped to a desk chair, and his captor no longer an innocent face full of zest.

Here stands an angry teenager full of hatred and resentment, visibly intent on causing psychological harm to the man who claims to be her friend. Her motives are not entirely clear until the third act, but up to that point they play like ambiguous suggestions; because her impulses aren’t grounded by plausible motives before then, much of our wonder is captured by the awkwardness of the situation (what young girl really grasps the concept of what is going on, after all, if she is the one making all the moves?). Never mind again. The movie is chock-full of tense conversations between both victim and oppressor in which they each attempt to gain an upper hand. She goes through his things looking for clues to his dubious fetishes. He attempts to psycho-analyze her as a means of picking up on insecurity. Through it all Wilson and Page are careful to not hammer their personas into overzealous caricatures. They are skilled and spot-on in every single frame, and in a movie with less impulsive shock factors one can deduce the great possibilities they would share as costars.

But look at the material they are dealing with – what does it even want to be? An analysis about pedophiles? An indictment against child pornography? A warning that children can aggressively defend themselves against the come-ons of perverts? Or more crudely, a critique of an audience that may or may not find the subject matter alluring as a sado-masochism parable? However you want to paint the coloring book, the portrait is a gruesome one that seems impossible to deal with on any substantial level. And that’s aggravating given the technical skill of Slade’s production team. The movie looks great. The photography possesses a sense of bold self-awareness. The images permeate a sense of plausible menace that is only amplified by the low rumble of a soundtrack, and the scenes flow with a sleight of hand that would have made Hitchcock’s editors envious. All the ingredients that would ordinarily make a tremendous psychological thriller are utilized in “Hard Candy” to great dexterity, well up into a final act that provides a series of jolts that are not easily seen coming. For some, maybe those values will be enough to rationalize the psychological clout of the subject at hand. As I kept watching, my enthusiasm was displaced by the overwhelming sense of how wrong it all felt.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Crime/Thriller (US); 2005; Rated R; Running Time: 104 Minutes

Patrick Wilson: Jeff Kohlver
Ellen Page: Hayley Stark
Sandra Oh: Judy Tokuda

Produced by Paul G. Allen, Michael Caldwell, Ellora Chowdhury, Erica Farjo, David W. Higgins, Richard Hutton, Barney Jeffrey, Rosanne Korenberg, Brian Nelson, Jody Patton, Hans Ritter and Alex Webster; Directed by David Slade; Written by Brian Nelson

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