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DIRECTED BY: David Slade
FEATURING: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson
PLOT: A teenage girl turns the tables on a sexual predator, subjecting him to torture in retribution for his misdeeds.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For regular consumers of torture-based horror, the turnabout of predator and prey in Hard Candy is an interesting surprise. But twist aside, what’s notable about the movie isn’t how strange it is, but how it uses the genre to address heavy questions about guilt, justice, and gender roles.
COMMENTS: In January of this year, confessed serial child molester Larry Nassar was forced to sit quietly while 156 women confronted him about his crimes and the pain they have endured ever since. And Larry Nassar did not like it. This man, whose systematic abuse was aided by America’s top gymnastics coaches, abetted by the country’s gymnastics federation, and protected by Michigan State University, submitted a letter to the judge protesting that having to endure the testimony of his many targets was detrimental to his mental health and asserting that he was a good person who was being unfairly victimized by hateful, hateful women. Suffice it to say, the letter was poorly received.
The reason I bring this up—aside from maybe wanting to add just one more link on Google that reminds the world that Larry Nassar is heinous slimeball—is because Hard Candy does a fantastic job of getting inside the deluded mind of the privileged sex criminal: rejecting the existence of a crime, then mitigating its seriousness, and finally claiming victimhood for himself. The film’s subject, photographer Jeff, uses all these techniques to deceive us into sympathizing with him, even as we watch him go through all the steps of sexual predation: grooming, leading passively, shifting guilt back onto his targets. And he’s good at it, so when the 14-year old girl he’s been expecting to seduce drugs him, ties him up, and proceeds to insult and threaten him, there’s still this lingering sense that he’s a decent guy who has just gotten himself into a real pickle.
The plot evokes memories of Audition, which is appropriate, as Brian Nelson’s screenplay was evidently inspired by news reports of gangs of girls in Japan who lured businessmen into traps online. But where the earlier film hides its intentions behind the tropes of romantic comedy, Hard Candy quickly adopts the conventions of horror, including bondage and body mutilation. The film’s innovation is to flip the script and turn the diminutive (Page is a full foot shorter than her co-star), incautious heroine into the diabolical, unstoppable engine of terror. The result is that she can be read as a violent lunatic, when it is vital to remember that the man she is tormenting is a very bad person.
Movies can be victims of changing times. In 2005, many reviewers called Page’s Hayley a psychopath and lamented the film’s second-half descent into cat-and-mouse thriller. But today, she comes across more as an avenging angel come to force the guilty to acknowledge their sins. It’s noteworthy that the scene that falls the flattest—Page has to sidestep Sandra Oh’s inquisitive neighbor—is the one that tries the hardest to impose the conventions of a thriller onto a battle over the nature of evil. Hard Candy turns out to have been ahead of its time.
Page is truly magnificent, by the way; this was her breakthrough performance, and she has never since had a role that equals it in power. But it’s worth noting that she has a good partner in Wilson, who hits all the right beats for a character who is innately gifted at evading, deflecting, and denying responsibility for his actions. His bland dismissals and patronizing defenses are essential in pushing her forward, validating her anger and justifying her ultimate plan.
The final woman to stand up to Larry Nassar in court was the woman whose testimony triggered his downfall. Rachael Denhollander— whose name also deserves to be remembered—demonstrated unbelievable magnanimity by promising to pray for Nassar, that he find true repentance and forgiveness. And that is probably the most moral and decent response that anyone could hope for under the circumstances. Hard Candy suggests an alternate response, and while it plays more toward wish fulfillment and is by no means appropriate in a civil society, in the face of an evil that is often unspeakable, the movie shows why it still has appeal.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Hard Candy is one sick movie. Sick and horrifying. Sick and mesmerizing. Sick and well-scripted, well-acted, well-directed and well-shot. Sick and comical; sick and suspenseful; sick and surprising; sick and sickening. Maybe if I take another shower, I’ll feel less scummy for enjoying it so much.” – Amy Biancolli, Houston Chronicle (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by ralph. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)