Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hard Candy: Little Red and the Pedophile

Hard Candy is 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, but that it ends up working for the drama rather than against it.

The film 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. Screening tests resulted in a lot of walk-outs, and it's indeed a long, brutal torture scene to sit through.

But: It turns out that Hayley faked the castration. After bravely taking us where cinema hasn't gone before, the film loses its nerve. 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.

Yet on subsequent viewings, I began to see a new film, in which those defects become assets. Hard Candy plays as an enacted domination fantasy, whereby a guilt-ridden man is tormented by a teen fantasy figure, taken to the brink of the worst punishment imaginable, culminating in his "noble" decision to kill himself. Yet in the background, you still feel the brutal horror of the first viewing experience, when you really thought Jeff was losing his member. The film works on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy simultaneously, or at least for me.

Like the Todd Solondz film Palindromes, Hard Candy is also a morality puzzle, refusing to anchor us on safe ground. We can no more decide between pedophilia and vengeful sadism than between pro-choice and pro-life; either side is hopeless. Solondz and Slade gives us a young teens driven to extremity -- as Aviva engineered the death of an abortion doctor, Hayley forces a pedophile to kill himself. We obviously condone neither action, yet are drawn into empathizing with demented thirteen- and fourteen-year olds who have warped ideas about justice.

Fascinating is how 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.

Hard Candy is so many things: a brilliant dialogue drama, a brutal revenge thriller, a weirdly enacted domination fantasy, and a morality paradox. The performances of Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson are crucial to the film's success, and they are first rate.


Blogger Rick Sumner said...

One thing I particularly liked about the movie is, as you note, how
realistic a pedophile he is. But it's not only a realistic pedophile,
it's--for the most part--one of the most realistic psychopaths to come
out of Hollywood, with the possible exception of Hannibal Lector..
There's a tendency in Hollywood to either entertain the idea that
inside every psychopath is a great hero waiting to break free, or that
inside every psychopath is a snivelling coward. The reality is that inside every psychopath is more psychopath. Jeff is no hero, and
while he does show some cowardice, he's no pure coward either (thirst
for action trumps fear when he declines to call 911, for example). It falls short in two markers, however.

Firstly, the fear before the castration is too genuine. Secondly, it would be incredibly bizarre for a psychopath's sense of shame to trump
his will to live. Both of these, though, are necessary shortcomings,
I think, because without it the savagery of the act is substantially
diminished. We need to be able to identify with Jeff to some degree
(and largely against our will) for the movie to work. So while it
falls short, it's justifiably so.

Another thought, when watching movies, we generally have a considerably higher tolerance for vigilante justice than we would condone in real life--look at 8MM, for example. Few of us can countenance pistol whipping a man to death in real life, but on film, while we may struggle with it, the sight of Nicholas Cage's face as he portrays his character's struggle allows us to justify it. Perhaps we think it's ultimately wrong, but we can still call him the hero. Hayley
crosses a line that even the hardest heart can scarcely condone, even
in cinema. It's not the violence of the act, I think, so much as her
mercilessness in the face of his fear (which is why it was needed
above, I think). Even a pedophile, a child-killer, a person most of
us would consider among the lowest scum around, is deserving of mercy
when he's afraid.

Another thing that was striking to me was how self-evident the choice
he would make at the end was. It seems that dire shame is pretty
universally regarded as a fate worse than death.

As a final note, what I found to be the most interesting parallel
between Humbert Humbert of Lolita and Jeff of Hard Candy (I can
actually think of a few), it's interesting that in both narratives the pedophile ultimately kills themselves (Humbert symobolically, of course) rather than own up to who they are.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Nice observations, Rick. I agree about the Hollywood tendency to portray "inside every psychopath a great hero waiting to break free". That's more or less how they treated the Kevin Bacon pedophile in The Woodsman (an awful film, I thought).

Oddly enough, Hayley Stark reminds me a lot of Max Cady from Scorsese's Cape Fear. They both operate out of a perverse code of justice (she against pedophiles, he against lawyers who betray their clients), are passionately angry, yet mostly keep their anger masked under sarcastic wit and perverse humor. They're quite funny, actually, if nut-cases.

Blogger Rick Sumner said...

Just to qualify my comments above a bit, as a huge Kubrick fan, I'm somewhat embarassed that Hannibal Lector as the only "possible exception" was reported. Kubrick, of course, could paint a brilliant psychopath. Other than the obvious in "A Clockwork Orange," he also had some genius examples in "Full Metal Jacket," eg the helicoptoer gunner:

Joker How can you shoot women and children?

Gunner Easy. You just don't lead 'em so much. Ain't war hell?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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." But as James Sanford notes, she spends the rest of the film making a mockery of her own words. Andrew Criddle points out the same thing: "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."

Mental maturity and physical maturity are completely different things.


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