My 100 Favourite Films in Review – Number 99, Hard Candy

Number 99 – Hard Candy

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“Hard Candy”

Definition 1 – “an underage girl – often aged 12 to 16 – who is particularly attractive and/or gullible”

Definition 2 – “a sugar candy, called so because it becomes stiff and brittle once it approaches room temperature”

Okay now that we have our two main definitions of the phrase, have a guess which one today’s movie will cover. If you don’t feel like guessing, I’ll explain where the inspiration for the story came from. There was apparently a series of reported incidents in Japan – where schoolgirls would track down older businessmen suspected of child abuse. They would then lure them to meet in public, only to ambush them with a gang. As the film was to deal with some very mature and controversial themes, the budget was kept as tight as possible to keep studio interference to a minimum. Funded with a measly $950,000 and shot in the director’s house, the film ended up grossing $7 million altogether. It also helped launch the careers of its two leads – Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. So let’s play a game of cat and mouse, shall we?

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The film opens and immediately dates itself to a pre-social media era. We see one of those age old things known as an internet chatroom. These are thankfully a thing of the past – with Facebook and Twitter coming along and rendering them obsolete. But back in the late 90s and early 2000s, plenty of writers realised the horror potential of them and created stories either about or paralleling the dangers of romance on the internet. Tom Riddle’s diary in the second Harry Potter book was inspired by this very thing, as was the demon Moloch in a Buffy episode. Other famous examples of playing the chatroom for horror potential are the thriller Cry_Wolf and of course the very film we’re watching. Sure enough, the conversation we’re reading has two online friends flirting rather raunchily. They agree to meet in person.

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We now switch to the café where they said they’d meet. Party A is played by a seventeen-year-old Ellen Page – though she appears to be around fourteen. Party B is played by Patrick Wilson, who appears to be around thirty. Now something here doesn’t seem quite right. Especially when Jeff (Wilson) wipes the chocolate cake off the girl’s lips and licks it himself. Just before their conversation starts, the camera lingers on a flyer for a missing young girl. That doesn’t help the ominous feeling we’re getting. But Jeff and Hayley (Page) get chatting – and we find that they’ve known each other online for three weeks, and Hayley makes a good show of trying to make herself seem mature and intelligent. Jeff likewise compliments her on being very mature for her age. He also invites her back to his house so they can watch a bootlegged video of some concert…

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“Wanna blindfold me as well?”

They drive to Jeff’s house and Hayley shows that she’s not a complete idiot, refusing a drink that Jeff offers her. But then again she pours some scotch for herself. Willingly giving yourself alcohol inside a stranger’s house? This girl’s a goner for sure. Jeff takes her into his studio, showing off his work – as he’s a professional photographer. But the thing is, most of his models are underage. The exception is a girl called Janelle he has hanging on his wall. Judging from how Jeff reacts to the picture, we can assume she’s the one that got away. Hayley steers the topic back to Jeff’s photography, and asks him to take a picture of her. Just as you think things are about to get incredibly awkward, one of them faints. And which one it is will surprise you…

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So there’s our big twist! Jeff regains consciousness some time later, finding himself tied to a chair. As soon as he realises that Hayley drugged him – and it wasn’t part of some kinky foreplay – he’s not happy. When he tries to call for help, she sprays cleaning fluid down his throat. She then drops the bombshell that she picked a day where she knew his neighbours would be out of town, so no one would be able to hear him screaming. But she then points out that she has no reason to keep him quiet. After all, she’s fourteen and alone in a house with a stranger who has pictures of underage girls on his wall. To emphasise her point, she reveals that she posed as three different girls in various chatrooms. Through trial and error, she deduced that he lost interest in girls who were older than eighteen.

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Jeff tries to defend himself, but Hayley launches into a rant. Paying close attention to how Ellen Page delivers it tells us quite a bit about her. We never find out anything about Hayley’s backstory in this film, so plenty of fans have done their own interpretations. This little speech in particular is delivered with a little more bitterness than everything else Hayley says. Her voice cracks as she says “just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman, it does not mean she’s ready to do what a woman does” – and Ellen Page is offering us a potential explanation for why Hayley’s doing this. It seems quite reasonable to suggest that she herself was a victim of a molester or came close to being. The way Page says this speech seems to indicate there’s something personal in Hayley’s attack. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s fan fiction out there of Hayley becoming a superhero after the events of this movie.

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Or actual fiction.

Hayley wheels Jeff into his bedroom where she proceeds to root through his stuff. Jeff continues to try to defend himself, but Hayley’s having none of that. It’s now time to analyse the performance from our other lead. In contrast to Hayley, we find out quite a bit about Jeff. We already know that he flirted with a girl he believed to be underage, met her in public, brought her back to his house, allowed her to have alcohol and was planning to photograph her with his camera. And yet Patrick Wilson does a very good job of making us feel sorry for this man. Throughout the film, he keeps us guessing. Is he just a voyeur who restricts himself to a few questionable photos? Or is he capable of something much more sinister? The way Wilson portrays him, Jeff seems almost disgusted that Hayley accuses him of being a rapist. Or is it guilt? It’s completely up to you to decide. Anyway Hayley finds a bunch of letters from Janelle and starts to read through them, clearly taking some kind of sadistic pleasure in airing all of Jeff’s dirty laundry in front of him. But what Hayley has struggled to find is porn. She’s astonished that she’s searched a 30-something guy’s house and not found a single stash of porn.

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Which would be like going to Elsa’s house and not finding any ice.

She continues the search – and even finds a gun under his bed. She eventually finds a hidden safe and demands the combination. Jeff instead tries to get inside her head now, attempting to touch on issues she may have with her family. It seems as if it could be working…

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Hayley tries various combinations to open the safe and finally hits one that might be it: the date he lost his virginity to Janelle. The safe opens, and Hayley finds a picture. It’s not pornographic or in any way questionable. But the sight of it strikes a nerve with Hayley. Conversely Jeff strikes at her head, kicking her into the table. He wheels his chair into the bedroom and goes for the gun. Unfortunately for him, Hayley is nowhere to be found. She quickly comes at him from behind and makes him pass out by wrapping cling film around his face. As soon as he’s out, we finally see Hayley’s composure crack. For the first time, we really see her snap. From the way Ellen Page plays it, it appears she’s showing us just how deranged this young girl is.

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Jeff regains consciousness finding himself tied to a table, his pants gone and a bag of ice over his sacred man parts. Hayley then reveals that the picture she found in the safe is of the girl reported missing on the flyer in the café. Jeff claims he only met her for coffee once and never brought her back to his house. He then questions why Hayley hasn’t called the cops yet. And it’s at this point that Hayley throws away any sympathy she may have built up earlier in the film. It’s understandable that people would root for her. After all her victim is a scumbag who may or may not have committed a serious crime. But when Hayley has enough evidence to implicate him, why does she not go to the authorities? She outright says that jail time and being marked on the register wouldn’t be enough punishment. She doesn’t care about keeping a predator off the streets. What she wants is blood.

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And we discover the real reason she’s tied him up. From reading some of her father’s medical textbooks, she thinks she can perform a successful castration. Jeff once again tries to talk Hayley down, appealing to her guilt. But from what we’ve seen of Hayley, it probably takes something severe to make her feel the slightest bit of guilt. Jeff’s next resort is to scream for help again – and this time Hayley sprays him with bleach. As she starts shaving his downstairs hairs, Jeff is reduced to bribing her with money. Three guesses how well that works. Hayley leaves the room and for some reason starts walking around on the roof – where it appears she is spotted by a lady trimming her roses.

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Jeff has a sob story ready for Hayley when she gets back. He stayed over with his cousins when he was ten. One day his four-year-old cousin jumped out of the bath on top of him – only for the girl’s mother to walk in on them. He describes his aunt dragging him to the kitchen and holding him over the burning stove. She threatened to burn his balls off if she ever caught him with her daughter again. Needless to say he didn’t stay over there after that. Hayley is unfazed by the story and proceeds with the operation. She also sets up a camera so that Jeff can watch her. I have to say that I forgot just how disturbed I was by this scene on my first watch. The fact that Ellen Page has Hayley talk so cheerfully while she’s doing this just adds to the horror. It’s almost like if Barney the dinosaur were a serial killer.

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Jeff says that he saw his cousin once more at her mother’s funeral. When he told her what her mother had done to him, she didn’t believe him. And Hayley still doesn’t believe him either, but she’s now done with the procedure. She’s tempted to toss the…items outside, but thinks better of it at the idea that an animal might mistakenly eat them. So she does have standards after all.

Hayley switches the topic to Donna, the missing girl. Jeff still denies doing anything to her. Perhaps in response to this, Hayley now launches into a series of hypothetical scenarios about his future sans testicles. And once again, the dissonance between Page’s cheerful delivery and what she’s talking about solidifies this girl as genuine sadistic evil. She leaves to take a shower and Jeff reacts exactly as you’d expect a man who’s just had his testicles cut off by a fourteen year old to. But when Hayley’s gone, he’s able to free himself and…

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It turns out Hayley completely fooled him. The ‘live video’ was pre-recorded. The testicles are actually just plums. And his balls are still attached to their owners, the pain Jeff felt coming merely from a bull clip. That’s still pretty painful to think about, but it’s preferable to an amateur castration. Jeff makes his way to the living room, picks up the phone, dials 911…and puts the phone down. And as he heads for the bathroom, he undergoes what TV Tropes calls the Face Heel Door Slam. He had an opportunity to do the right thing and turned his back on it. In choosing to get revenge on Hayley rather than calling for help, he abandons any sympathy he may have built up. But Hayley was actually lying in wait and goes to town on him with a Taser.

Hayley goes about tidying up the house, apparently in the hopes of erasing evidence that she was ever there. She then types up a suicide note on Jeff’s computer saying that he tried to shoot himself. She also calls Janelle, pretending to be a police officer, and tells her to come to the house. Hayley ties Jeff up again, setting him up to hang from the rafters. But there’s noise from outside, so Hayley gags him and goes to the door. There she meets…

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Judy Tokuda, played by Sandra Oh – who agreed to cameo in this film due to her working relationship with Ellen Page. Hayley pretends to be Jeff’s niece from out of town, and that Jeff is asleep with food poisoning. Judy’s selling Girl Scout cookies so Hayley takes them – but the neighbour seems suspicious when Hayley forgets to pay. Judy also lets slip that she saw Hayley walking around on the roof earlier. Hayley tries to cover that she was checking a leak, but you can almost hear her heart stop when Judy asks if it rained. Nevertheless Hayley gets rid of her.

Hayley has now pulled the proverbial gloves off and offers Jeff a deal: confess to killing Donna and she’ll erase all evidence tying him to it. Jeff defies her, saying that now Judy Tokuda has spotted her, Hayley will spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder. Hayley of course can’t resist the chance to gloat – and Jeff strikes. As he frees himself, Hayley runs outside. When Jeff follows, Hayley ducks back inside and fetches the rope. Back in the house, Jeff searches for her. But when he comes to one of his pictures, he goes mad and starts stabbing it. He murmurs that Hayley was right; this is who he is. We then see Hayley waiting on the roof, as well as Janelle’s car heading for the house.

Jeff climbs onto the roof, where Hayley has the gun. She also reveals that she’s called Janelle, and the girl is on her way over. She also reveals that her deal still stands: she’s set the rope up for him to hang himself off the roof. Jeff vows to track her down but she counters that maybe none of what she told him about herself was true. Executives suggested implying that she was actually eighteen, but Ellen Page vetoed it. Hayley claims that:

“I am every girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, killed…”

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The audience’s thoughts exactly.

Jeff hears Janelle’s car pulling up outside the house. Hayley persuades him to put the noose around his neck, and at least save his reputation. Jeff reaffirms that he didn’t kill Donna – he just watched. He wanted to take pictures but the other guy wouldn’t let him. He offers to give Hayley his name, but she doesn’t need it. Because…

“Aaron told me it was you before he killed himself.”

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“Checkmate.”

Jeff allows Hayley to place the noose around his neck. Hayley promises to take care of it all, and Jeff jumps off the roof. While he’s hanging, Hayley says something else.

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The film ends with Hayley leaving the house, a sadistic look of pleasure on her face. To complete the effect, she’s got a red hoodie on.

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So with an ambiguous ending like that, there’s a bit open to interpretation. But before we get into the fates of the characters, I’d like to talk a bit more about Hayley. As expected, a lot of people get taken in by the sympathetic backstory – which we never get confirmation is true and it’s only hinted at. But victim of abuse or not, let’s run through what she did throughout the course of this movie. A) Hunted a person down and manipulated her way into his home, B) drugged him, tied him up for hours and tortured him physically and mentally, C) convinced him to commit suicide, D) made sure that his reputation would be ruined, and E) has done the same to at least one other person. The fact that these two guys were supposed child molesters doesn’t negate that. Hayley is not meant to be heroic. She’s just as evil as Jeff. One could argue that she targets other evil doers as a way to cover her own ass. As she says, no one is going to question the murder of a child molester. But the big question is what will happen if Hayley suddenly gets a taste for going after innocent people too?

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The fate of Jeff and Hayley is left completely open. According to Patrick Wilson, a shot was filmed of Jeff’s dead body hanging from the roof. But he prefers the final cut, where it’s more ambiguous. It’s also ambiguous as to whether or not Hayley will get away with what she did. The most obvious source of debate is Judy Tokuda. Some believe that she may have interpreted Hayley to be in some kind of distress – with a fresh cut on her forehead and a story that was obvious bogus. But others – like myself – believe that Judy instead found Hayley quite suspicious. Hayley to me came across as a vandal being busted for breaking in. And Janelle would tell the police that she was called over to the house by a young-ish sounding girl on the phone – who would quickly be found out to be an impostor. The suicide note looks especially planted. The police could also believe that the photo of Donna was planted as well. So while Hayley may get away with the murder, I feel as if it’s almost fitting comeuppance for her that the world might believe Jeff to be innocent.

Anyway I forgot just how freaking dark this movie was. I loved it! David Slade has since gone on to direct a few more films and TV episodes, as well as his usual music videos. Ellen Page of course would be brought to attention as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand, eventually getting an Oscar nomination for Juno and becoming the respected actress she is today. Patrick Wilson would likewise appear in notable roles such as Watchmen, Little Children, Insidious and The Conjuring. Both actors are still working away today, and this remains a very respectable early project from both of them.

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Here are the grades.

*Story – it’s not that plot heavy, but it’s a very intense cat-and-mouse story nonetheless. Clearly affected by the low budget but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. B

*Characters – it’s just Hayley and Jeff for most of the film, so it’s a very character-driven piece. The fact that viewers don’t know whether to root for the child molester or the serial killer is a testament to how well they are written. A

*Performances – two well written characters go hand in hand with two tour-de-force performances. Ellen Page’s cheerful take on Hayley’s sadistic personality helps her make a chilling villain. Patrick Wilson switches back and forth between sympathy and malevolence in a shockingly convincing way. A+

*Visuals – most of the budget went on making the film look nice. The house is a nice location and is dressed accordingly. There’s some good contrasts between monochromes and bold colours like reds and blues. What else would you expect from a musical video director? A

*Special EffectsN/A

*Anything Else – good use of close-ups to really get the characters’ motivations and emotions across. The fast-motion sequences during the ‘action’ parts were a bit off-putting, but that’s a very small gripe. B

Following this is the first of many Alfred Hitchcock suspense thrillers Rope.

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