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April 26-May 2, 2006

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'Hard Candy'

Little Red Revenging Hood: Hayley (Ellen Page) turns the tables on the wolf in 'Hard Candy.'

Sweet and Sour

David Slade's 'Hard Candy' turns a fairy tale into a horror-movie revenge orgy

By Richard von Busack

NYMPHETS gorge on sweets, said Humbert Humbert. When 32-year-old Jeff (Patrick Wilson) meets 14-year-old Hayley in a cafe called Nighthawks, he catches her unaware. She still has an unlicked patch of chocolate ganache on her lip. The pint-size, apologetic Hayley (Ellen Page) is not what anyone would expect when they imagined "Thongrrrl14," but that was her handle online.

After coffee, Hayley agrees to go for a ride in her Internet suitor's car to his Hollywood Hills house for who knows what—though when the camera swiveled up to check out a "Have You Seen This Woman?" poster of a missing girl, we can suspect the worst.

The two drink screwdrivers, but Jeff's cocktail knocks him out. The man awakes drugged and tied up: a subject for her pleasure, rather than the other way around. As she explains her plans, Hayley seems ready to deliver the special punishment reserved for rapists—even the statutory kind.

At first, Hard Candy winds viewers up. One can admire how director David Slade holds the high moral ground, making sure that there is nothing seriously pubescent or provocative about his heroine. When Hayley dances on a chair, she bares her midriff, and her torso is corded with muscle.

Her cropped head makes her look even younger. The matter of Hayley's haircut is explained by saying that she is a fan of Jean Seberg. But that Seberg gaff is like Hayley's reference to the old "four out of five doctors" magazine advertisement and the phrase "Scout's honor" that she uses. Not only is it yesterday's slang, it's so yesterday that it can't even pass for ironic.

It is always a question just who exactly this girl is supposed to be. In one moment, Hayley is a better angel, gently telling the pervert never ever to look at the wrong kind of photos. In another instant, she is an avenging spirit, like the angry ghost of Andrea Dworkin: "Who am I? I'm every girl you ever watched in the schoolyard."

What Hayley never really shows us is a real 14-year-old girl, with an adolescent's longing for experience and sensation, held back by fear of what her parents will do and what her friends will say.

Strapped to the table, her victim, the weaselly Patrick Wilson (monotonous in the part) is tormented first with humiliation and then with threats. When Hard Candy goes in for sympathy for this pedophile—and the suggestion of a mistaken identity—this thriller becomes daring and interesting.

The script is sometimes better than the movie's exploitation title. It is the work of playwright Brian Nelson, who doesn't seem to understand how the walls close in after a movie spends an hour indoors. The few glances outside the house show us the diseased-looking skyline of L.A., yellow with smog. In the latter third, we get a brief glimpse of the serene oval face of Sandra Oh, who plays a neighbor who investigates the strange noises at Jeff's house. Don't miss her scenes, because she is the only sane person in the entire film.

To fight the walled-in feeling, Slade ues mood-ring fields of color: bruise purple, burgundy and greenish-orange—perhaps this unripe peach color symbolizes Hayley.

Using the threat of rape is an easy way to create tension onscreen. Directors have used it effectively ever since The Birth of a Nation. The appeal of the rape-revenge film is even more basic. We get not only the suspense but also the vicarious punishment of the villain, who suffers for any improper pleasure the audience might have experienced watching the heroine's clothes being ripped off.

If a rapist gets his just deserts, one prefers to see it done in hot blood, as when Bruce Willis "disarms" the Yellow Bastard in Sin City or the lout gets the outboard-motor-blade castration in I Spit on Your Grave.

The film creates a sense of disgust that a lot of viewers will mistake for suspense. And if Hard Candy is hard hitting, it's only in the sense of a fighter who always punches below the belt. This punitive film is a throwback to the Ashcroft regime. Hayley sorts through contraband photos: "This is the reason why they have those federal laws."

As the prematurely wise Hayley, Page has something, though that something wears out fast. A young, smart girl with the odds against her earns our natural sympathy, but Hayley always holds the upper hand. All you can do is watch crescents of amusement at each side of her mouth deepening as she thinks up new punishments.

Those crescents, and that catty smile, remind one of Sigourney Weaver, just as the film has similarities to the far more intelligent Death and the Maiden. Let's guess that the resemblance between the two films provoked Hard Copy's insulting reference to Roman Polanski.

It is not exactly an improvement on the story of Little Red Riding Hood to have her genitorturing the wolf. And after watching Hayley, I remembered where I'd seen the face, that stature, that haircut and that facial expression: in Abu Ghraib photos. Was it a deliberate choice to cast Hayley as a girl who looks so much like Pvt. Lynndie England?

Movie TimesHard Candy (R; 99 min.), directed by David Slade, written by Brian Nelson, photographed by Jo Willems and starring Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page, opens Friday.

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