This week I took a look at David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005). I can’t believe that it has been sixteen years since I walked into a Blockbuster on a Friday night and rented this movie. It feels like just yesterday, but I digress; Hard Candy is a cult horror classic. It’s not horror in the traditional slasher or supernatural sense, it goes down the path of being a psychological suspense film with a twist on the “woman filled with vengeance” concept.
Hard Candy centers around two individuals who have been chatting online for a few weeks. Hayley Stark, aka “Thonggrrl14” (Ellen Page) and photographer Jeff Kohlver, aka “Lensman319” (Patrick Wilson) have been, I guess what you would call innocently flirting back and forward and decide to finally meet in person at a coffee shop, there happens to be the matter of Hayley being fourteen and Jeff is thirty two years old. It’s obvious that Jeff has an attraction towards younger girls. The two finally meet and exchange conversation and eventually go back to Jeff’s place where the decor is mostly photographs of young women he’s shot over the years. It’s unclear what anyone’s intentions are because they’re never obviously stated, but after some more conversation and they get more comfortable after a few drinks, Hayley lures Jeff into shooting some pictures of her in his studio. As he’s taking pictures of Hayley, Jeff starts to feel faint and passes out. When Jeff comes to he is tied to a chair and Hayley’s demeanor is no longer flirtatious, in fact it’s vengeful. Actually Hayley has an ulterior motive for Jeff and this is where the line of who is predator and who is prey becomes blurred.
Patrick Wilson plays Jeff perfectly. He captured the innuendo-spitting, cocky pedophile photographer so well. The opening conversation between Lensman319 and Thonggrrl14 is so unsettling; it feels all too real. In the beginning in the coffee shop, Jeff is thinking he’s about to get away with being the one with the power and control. He seems so confident in himself and what he thinks is impressive to Hayley by doing things like flaunting that he has a secret recorded MP3 of the Goldfrapp concert he claims that he went to. He buys Hayley a shirt, flaunting his money around, and drives a Mini Cooper. He says subtle sexual suggestive things and is flirty, it’s really cringe-worthy. One part that really cringed me out was a scene where Jeff takes his thumb to wipe chocolate off Hayley’s fourteen year old lips just to suck it off his thumb. Even though it’s such a small and subtle action, it’s effective in its level of discomfort. Everything Hayley does in this film is justified just by that one violation of personal space from an older man.
Our celebrated female protagonist, Hayley, at first appearance looks so sweet. She has innocent, kind and vulnerable eyes; a face that looks like it’s bound to be taken advantage of. This just goes to show that we just can’t trust anyone that we meet off the internet. Hayley is a super intelligent girl. She reads Zadie Smith, Jean Seberg, and Shakespeare, and claims that she listens to insightful musicians like John Mayer and Coldplay. She seems like the above average honor roll student who might be a little naive and ready to be preyed upon. Well the predator is not who you think it is – well obviously Jeff is a predator in a different sense – it’s actually Hayley who is hunting her prey. She’s not a final girl running from a monster, she’s trapped the monster and now she’s going to show you how it’s done. We’re just seeing the roles reversed where we see what happens to the monster after it’s been caught.
Hayley works on Jeff through stages: intimidation and then a complete psychological breakdown to reduce him down to nothing because it’s not just enough to report this predator, we want him to suffer. She forces Jeff to face his disgusting acts and provides him with consequence in the form of a surgical procedure for psychological abuse. A consequence that leaves Jeff terrified. My only thing about Hard Candy is that I wanted Hayley to finish the job in her surgical mind game. But that’s the thing about Hayley, she doesn’t really do that much to Jeff physically. Jeff’s damage is either self-inflicted or a mental torment from Hayley. Just like in many situations men convince women that they’re the problem in abusive relationships.
Hayley speaks a lot while having Jeff captive. She raises some provocative social issues that are deserving of addressing. She states to Jeff, “It’s just so easy to blame a kid isn’t it? Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she’s ready to do what a woman does”. I think that is a very strong line in the movie. One that will stop and really make you think and I believe that’s important. One of the reasons Hard Candy works is because the primary focus is on a social dialogue between two characters. Besides Hayley and Jeff, you only see two other people. The center of this story is only supposed to be about what happens inside Jeff’s house between him and Hayley.
It’s important to note that as far as we know, Hayley was not a victim of sexual abuse to incite her revenge. She is never a victim or someone who was taken advantage of. Hayley has control for most of the movie, although there are times where she has her power struggles between her and Jeff. I think of movies like I Spit on Your Grave or Ms. 45 where the woman’s revenge is spawned from a sexual assault and I see the difference between those women and Hayley’s motive. Hayley’s vengeance is motivated by the disappearance and murder of her peer Donna Mauer. Our protagonist is a symbol for women everywhere, and she makes it clear when she says, “I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, killed.”
We have to remember that the true horror of Hard Candy is Jeff. And although he’s tied up and being tortured for most of the movie it’s for good reason. He’s a grown man lurking in chat rooms looking for underage girls to take suggestive pictures of. After all, Hayley makes a good point when she asks a tied up Jeff, “What the fuck are you doing?”. I applaud the character Hayley Stark, she’s an overall badass. She’s strong, independent and cerebral. The only thing I wanted was more brutality from Hayley which is just an example of the lack of empathy that I feel for Jeff. But other than that, Hard Candy is a memorable movie. So I suggest finding a streaming service to rent or even buy from if you’re feeling up to it.