Hard Candy (2005)
'Hard Candy' is a film that makes for a unique and often uncomfortable viewing experience. It's a small scale psychological thriller featuring, essentially, just two actors (there are a handful of others in very, very minor roles) - Ellen Page as a 14 year old girl named Hayley and Patrick Wilson as a 30 something bachelor named Jeff. Warning - I can't really talk about the film without giving away a big twist in the tale, though it is one that is given away in the trailer if I recall correctly.
The film begins with an online chat between Hayley and Jeff; both are flirtatious and end up agreeing to meet up at a coffee shop. Hayley turns out to be a shy but intelligent girl, and Jeff a suave professional photographer. After chatting for a while, the two end up going to Jeff's home, and it is apparent that his intentions are anything but noble. This is where things take an interesting twist - Jeff may well be a paedophile, but Hayley isn't the naive girl she purports to be. She surreptitiously drugs him, ties him up to a chair and confronts him about his intentions. From this point onwards the two engage in a battle of wits as Hayley tries to obtain proof of his paedophilia and proof that he had murdered another girl, while Jeff tries to prove his innocence. Things come to a head when Hayley prepares to castrate Jeff as punishment for his crimes.
The film is exceptionally well written and directed; with only one main location (Jeff's apartment), two characters, and a lot of character interaction, it has to be to work. There's plenty of tension and the situations and exchanges between the two are fascinating and frightening, and there are some real squirm inducing moments created without resorting to anything gratuitous. Both characters are convincingly realized as written (despite Hayley being quite unbelievable in concept), and are brilliantly portrayed by Wilson and Page. Jeff transforms from being despicably charming to violently enraged before ending up as a pitiful shell of a man, and Wilson does well to make the character occasionally sympathetic. He's helped by the fact that Page's portrayal of Hayley as a mix of childish girl and cold sociopath is so unsettling.
'Hard Candy' is a film that manages to instill a great deal of ambivalence. It's initially clear where sympathies lie, but as things unfold, it's hard to decide whom to get behind. Both characters are essentially monstrous; Hayley's position is perhaps more defensible, since she's punishing a wrongdoer, but her extreme and callous nature are ultimately hard to root for. This results in sympathies shifting as the story unfolds. It also raised a bit of a conundrum - if Jeffrey's nature had been more fully depicted and his crimes shown, would my sympathy have been squarely with Hayley, or would I have still been repulsed by Hayley's actions as well? In most revenge film scenarios, we see the bad guys at their most despicable, and this encourages us to get behind the person who dishes out punishment in retribution. It's interesting how the film presents this revenge scenario in a way that works against normal emotional conditioning. Although I have to also wonder whether my foreknowledge of the twist affected my perspective of events at the start of the film. (From a completely detached perspective however, I wouldn't want either of them walking the streets.)
Bottom line, it's a gripping and well made film that isn't exactly wholesome family fun. It's a smart thriller that certainly leaves you with something to think about.