As unforgivably manipulative as Dancer in the Dark but barely a fraction as ambitious, Hard Candy eventually does for outpatient surgery what Marathon Man did for the dentist’s chair. If you’re male, that is. If you’re a woman—or a parent—this Little Red Riding Hood wink turned thermonuclear Ms. 45 might be a queasily satisfying fantasy. And therein arises the movie’s slippery feat.
Candy opens on a flirty IM between Thonggrrrrrl14 and Lensman319, who decide to meet in person. He’s 32-year-old fashion photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson); she’s a doe-eyed 14-year-old named Hayley (Ellen Page) who looks more like a 12-year-old boy. Jeff doesn’t even blink at youth, continuing their frisky verbal repartee—she’s reading a Jean Seberg bio, he likes Goldfrapp, too. Once he mentions that his Hollywood Hills house isn’t too far away, she’s inviting herself over. Of course he says yes.
Director David Slade is yet another music-video graduate, evidenced in his fondness for the closeup. Cinematographer Jo Willems ably works with such a narrow visual palette, lingering on Jeff’s and Hayley’s faces and eyes long and often enough to drill through the facade each is putting forth. He’s hiding something more than a photographer’s appreciation for young women beneath his friendly smile, and glints of something much more sinister than precocity flits through her deep brown irises. At Jeff’s home studio the verbal tease continues as they drink the screwdrivers Hayley makes. Soon, though, Jeff begins to feel suddenly fatigued, and as he collapses Candy switches gears into a Harold Pinter-claustrophobic game of eat or be eaten in a confined space.
The visceral pull of revenge movies juts out like a bent hood at the collision of restorative violence and justifiable cynicism. Their moral-outrage calculus is too logically readymade: Rapists and murderers should be punished (see: Death Wish, I Spit on Your Grave, Straw Dogs, et al., to name the most citable). So when Jeff comes to—tied to a chair at first, eventually spread-eagle on a table with a numbing ice pack on his crotch—Hayley accuses him of not only of lusting after her youth but also of raping and killing one of her friends. And if she finds the proof she knows is in his house, she’s going to return to that ice pack with a scalpel in her hand.
If only it was content to end there. Foiling Hard Candy’s revengsploitation reassurance is the fact that both of these people are mental—who to root for? The pedophile or the Ed Gein-in-training riot grrl? Just don’t mistake such vagueness for psychological complexity: Hard Candy ends the only way it can, and it’s as structurally apt as it is ludicrous. More distressing is that the current revenge resurgence—The Punisher, Kill Bill, elements of Sin City, V for Vendetta—is the first pulpy flowering of such B-movie story lines since America’s economically downtrodden and politically muddy 1970s. Is that where we’re headed?