Hard Candy: Little Red and the Pedophile
You don't like this movie. Like a Todd Solondz film, it isn't built to be liked. It's there to be experienced, tolerated, and appreciated for the wretched, well-executed, difficult, artful, and appalling creation that it is. (Anne Gilbert)I loved this movie, but then I like Todd Solondz films. Hard Candy provokes thought in unpleasant ways, but for good reasons, as it wrestles with pedophilia and vengeful sadism and makes us wonder which is worse. (If you hate spoilers, stop reading now, because this review protects no secrets.) It's about a 14-year old sociopath (Hayley) who baits and traps a 32-year old ephebophile & closet-pedophile (Jeff), and then plays vicious head games with him before "fixing" him once and for all. But how she ends up doing this isn't what the viewer is led to expect, and the big debate among reviewers is whether or not the film cops out. I think it does.
The drama is dialogue-driven, and builds to the crux of Hayley castrating Jeff in his own home. It's as perversely thrilling as the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, the acupuncture torture in Audition, and the S&M in Blue Velvet. But in a way Hard Candy one-ups all of these on account of its non-graphic nature. It's not as pornographic as the others: we don't see any gory business going on down in Jeff's nether regions; what's left implied disturbs more than the sight of explicit surgery.
But the film starts to lose its nerve -- or perhaps tries improving on itself too cleverly -- once the operation is over. It turns out Hayley faked the castration. After bravely taking us where cinema hasn't gone before, the film takes a powder. And it weakens in another way, by becoming a chase-around-the-house thriller until it reaches its climax on the roof where Jeff hangs himself. Throughout its first three-quarters, the story stood on the strength of sharp dialogue and a cruel "operation". Now it forsakes indie-style drama for action-thriller sequences, and it even drops the ball with dialogue. Hayley's final line -- "I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, and killed" -- is cheap, and the sort of self-righteous vindication we expect from the Hollywood crowd.
Despite my reservations with the last 25 minutes, Hard Candy is an instant indie-favorite along with Palindromes. Like a Solondz film it embraces controversy and refuses to anchor us on moral ground. Hayley's vengeance rests on a hidden contradiction. At one point she lambastes Jeff: "Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she's ready to do what a woman does." She spends the rest of the film mocking herself, of course, for as Andrew Criddle points out: "If Hayley's youth and inexperience make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff's lover, then her youth and inexperience surely make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff's self-appointed judge."
Jeff makes the same mistake from the other direction. As Hayley starts digging into his scrotum, he protests: "A teenage girl doesn't do this." Her retort: "I've seen your idea of what a teenage girl should do with her day, so don't even start." They're both right, both wrong, and trapped in paradoxes that feed off each other.
In this sense, Hard Candy is a lot like Palindromes. In their cinematic contexts, we can no more decide between pedophilia and vengeful sadism than between pro-choice and pro-life, for either side is hopeless. Both films feature a young teen driven to extremity -- Aviva engineering the death of an abortion doctor, Hayley forcing a pedophile to kill himself. We obviously condone neither action, yet are drawn into empathizing with sick thirteen- and fourteen-year olds who have grim ideas about justice.