Hard Candy (Blu-ray)
Hard Candy made Ellen Page’s career, and she’s never given a better performance. But the film can be murder on audiences, and viewers haven’t always been receptive. First, there’s the inflammatory subject matter; the film depicts the first in-person encounter between a teenage girl and an older man with dubious motives after they’ve met on the internet. Then there’s the sensationalistic plot device in which the teen turns the tables on the would-be predator, which is played with such brutal conviction by Page and the equally impressive Patrick Wilson, and shot with such intensity by first-time feature director David Slade, that it gets right in your face.
But the real challenge of Hard Candy comes from that tricky storytelling device known as the “unreliable narrator”. Since I can’t talk about this aspect of the film without major spoilers, I’m departing from my usual practice in HTF disc reviews and making no effort to preserve the film’s secrets. For the sake of first-time viewers, though, I’ll save that part to the end and spoiler-protect it, so that the choice is up to the individual reader.
Film Length: 105 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25 GB
Theatrical Release Date: Apr. 14, 2006
Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 29, 2010 (Best Buy exclusive); Oct. 5, 2010 (generally)
The first thing we see after the credits is a computer screen, as a chat occurs in real time between “Lensman319" and “Teengrrrl14”. Flirtation abounds, as “Teengrrrl14” protests that she’s “not a baby”. Eventually, a meeting is arranged.
When the two typists meet at Nighthawks, a Los Angeles cafe, “Teengrrrl14” is eating a generous portion of tiramisu and has chocolate on her lips. She is Hayley (Page), a slight, dark-haired girl with wide eyes and a bookbag, who gives her age as 14. He is Jeff (Wilson), a handsome fashion photographer whose age is later revealed to be 32. The pair talk, and while most of the conversation seems innocent, there’s enough coy exploration to make the whole thing feel queasy. Visible on the wall behind Hayley and Jeff is a “missing” poster for Donna Mauer, a girl whom Hayley will later identify as a friend.
Jeff buys Hayley a Nighthawks t-shirt, which she models for him in the suggestive manner of someone trying to act older than she is. Eventually she agrees to accompany him home to listen to a bootleg MP3 recording of a performance by Goldfrapp, a band for which they share an enthusiasm.
Jeff’s home in the L.A. hills is stylish and elegant. It’s also his photography studio, and the walls are adorned with his work: huge photographs of female models, all of them young, and all nude or semi-nude. One, Janelle (Jennifer Holmes), became hugely successful shortly after Jeff photographed her. Jeff speaks of her wistfully, and it’s clear he’s never gotten over her. Partly in response to Hayley’s questions, Jeff converses with far greater frankness than is appropriate for a much older man who’s alone with a teenage girl he just met.
When Jeff brings them both beverages, Hayley announces that young girls are warned never to drink anything they haven’t mixed themselves. Jeff say that’s a good idea and lets Hayley take both glasses from him so that she can go into the kitchen and remix her own. Eventually he begins to photograph her. That’s when he starts to feel dizzy.
For the rest of Hard Candy, Jeff does his best to fight off the mysterious creature he invited into his home to exploit, never suspecting that he’s the one in danger. Jeff’s motives were despicable, but Hayley’s aren’t exactly admirable. She accuses Jeff of having something to do with Donna Mauer’s disappearance, but she’s certainly not there to collect evidence and phone the authorities. Indeed, Hayley’s motivation is a question mark that hovers over the film right through its final frame. But there’s a hint in this early exchange:
Jeff: Why don’t you just kill me?
Hayley: Is that what you think I want?
Jeff: Isn’t it?
The further the film progress, the more disturbing (and disturbed) Hayley becomes. At the point where Jeff is securely tied to a table and Hayley is shaving him to prepare for castration, I remember glancing around the theater just to break the tension. Every man I could make out in the dark had his legs tightly crossed. So did I.
Hard Candy contains relatively little onscreen violence, but it feels horrifically violent, because Page and Wilson play their characters’ rage, terror and every other shade of emotion with a ferocity rarely seen in movies. It helps that screenwriter Nelson has so thoughtfully conceived their characters, giving Jeff a wide variety of excuses, justifications and evasions, and providing Hayley with both devastating comebacks and an assortment of masks and deceptions behind which to hide.
Director Slade recognized at the outset that a film which is essentially a two-hander should be shot largely in close-up, but this seems only to have stimulated his visual imagination. Camera moves, focal lengths and color shifts have all been selected to keep the audience off-balance and the tension high. (This is one of the few films where the colorist for the digital intermediate, Jean-Clement Soret, played so crucial a role that he’s included in the opening credits.)
Slade and Nelson also understand the importance of dramatic pauses in a thriller, and this accounts for the brief but memorable appearance by Sandra Oh as Judy Tokuda, one of Jeff’s neighbors. Mrs. Tokuda notices Hayley at Jeff’s place early in the film, and later she knocks on the door because . . . well, you’ll just have to see it. (Oh did all her scenes in one day, and she took the job to support friend and fellow Canadian actor Page.)
Now let’s talk about that unreliable narrator. Spoilers below. You have been warned.
Lionsgate has delivered an excellent hi-def rendition of this tricky material. Detail is excellent, even in the many scenes featuring stark contrast between dark and light areas of the screen. The various color shifts carefully calibrated by director Slade and colorist Soret are faithfully rendered, although their work is often so subtle that you have to be looking for it to notice it (as compared to the flashier transitions in, e.g., A Single Man). Even though the disc is only a single-layer BD-25 and contains substantial extras, there does not appear to have been any effort to limit high-frequency detail with DNR or any other form of digital reduction. This is especially crucial for Hard Candy, because so much of the film plays out in minute changes of expression and beads of sweat on faces, all of which is beautifully rendered on this disc. I did not notice any digital artifacts.
The DTS lossless track gets the job done, but it’s not an especially demanding job. There is almost no soundtrack music (a deliberate choice), and the surround mix is limited to ambient sounds. Dialogue is the essential element, and almost all of it was recorded on set, with only minor adjustments in post-production. It’s also worth noting that, precisely because there is no underscoring, every grunt, groan, howl and shriek (and there are plenty) takes on extra significance and weight, as if one were sitting in the same room with Hayley and Jeff. The DTS track delivers all of these sounds with the appropriate sense of immediacy.
All of the special features have been ported over from the 2006 DVD. Not included are the film’s script and director’s notebook, which were available via DVD-ROM.
Commentary with Director David Slade and Writer Brian Nelson. Slade and Nelson recorded their commentary on the day of the film’s opening at the ArcLight Cinema in Los Angeles; so they were unusually energized. Nelson was on set making script revisions during the shoot, and both of them discuss how Page and Wilson brought the characters to life. Slade is informative about various technical elements, and at one point he notes a “subliminal cut” that can only be seen if one steps through the film frame by frame (it occurs shortly after the 21:00 mark).
Commentary with Actors Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page. Page and Wilson share an easy rapport, as one would expect from two actors who have shared the intense experience of making a film that essentially consists of a 90-minute confrontation between their characters. They are insightful and articulate about their approaches to their roles and the challenges of various scenes. They also talk about reactions to the film they’ve encountered from press, friends and even family.
Creating Hard Candy (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (51:50). This in-depth documentary traces the project from inception through premiere, using interviews with producer David Higgins, writer Nelson and stars Wilson and Page. Each of them gets an opportunity to speak at length about their involvement in the project, their contributions and their views of the finished product.
Controversial Confection (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (9:22). This is a briefer making-of featurette, but it has too many spoilers to be considered a promotional short. It covers some of the same ground as the longer documentary.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD; 2.35:1, centered in 4:3) (11:00). There are six scenes, but they’re only of minor interest. None of them adds anything of significance to the film’s narrative or our understanding of the characters.
Trailers. The film’s trailer in included in standard definition but enhanced for 16:9. At startup, the disc plays a trailer for Lionsgate on Blu-ray, which can be skipped with the chapter forward button.
The idea for Hard Candy occurred to producer David Higgins after he read reports of Japanese men trolling the internet for underage dates who were lured to meetings where gangs of teenage girls would rob them. From that inspiration came one of the most unnerving thrillers of the last decade. Is the film ultimately about important issues or big themes? I don’t think it is. It’s no more a tract against pedophilia than Psycho was a diatribe against murder. Since when does an effective thriller have to justify its existence?
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub