Pulsating with a hypnotic visual style, David Slade's directorial debut is a fascinating psychological thriller that is difficult to shake off and demands discussion afterwards. Revolving pre-dominately around two main characters, a film like Hard Candy lives or dies based on its two lead performances because it is so self-contained. Luckily, Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson are outstanding here. They both accomplish to portray deeply flawed individuals on such a humanistic level which is important for a film of this nature which attempts to achieve a sense of realism.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, I'd just like to point out the general set-up that Slade and writer Brian Nelson have prudently crafted. Haley Stark (Page) is a bright and articulate 14 year old girl and Jeff Kohlver (Wilson) is a photographer in his early thirties who meet in an internet chat room. They decide to meet face-to-face at a local coffee house and from the first couple of scenes there is something disturbing about this situation. Right away they seem to form a connection whilst engaging in conversation about normal stuff like food, literature, music, movies. Brian Nelson has a real knack for dialogue and it flows naturally with a great sense of palpability. After having a good-time drinking coffee lattes and eating desert, they both decide to take a ride to Jeff's house. Ok, now it seems pretty obvious where the film is heading. A cute young girl gets into a car with a total stranger who takes her to his house because she is interested in viewing his photography. This can only lead to more serious consequences for Haley who is now in the domain of a potential sexual predator, right? Wrong. The film refuses to deal with the delicative subject matter of pedophilia in a predictable way and there is a clever twist that allows the filmmakers to flex their creative muscles.
A visceral film dripping with atmosphere, Slant employs a lot of detail towards lighting to emphasize the sense of space, mood and character expressions. There are plenty of close-up shots and he makes sure that the lighting is just right to capture the facial expessions of his characters to the fullest extent. Every twitch of emotion on the face is capatured beautifully. There's a scene where Jeff stoically breaks down with a small tear trickling down his cheek and Slades manages to frame the shot expertly using the lighting to vividly portray this raw emotional force. Many of the shots inside the house (the pre-dominant setting) take on a slightly darker tone with little shades of sprinkled sunlight seaping in through the closed blinds. It's an effective stylistic choice because once again, it adds an even more sense of verisimilitude.
Utterly absorbing in its creation of tension, Slant places the viewer at the voyeruistic forefront of this intense scenario. Uncompromisingly sadistic, some scenes are not for that faint hearted. Disturbing and a little over the top but the violence works within the context of the story.
Despite its complexities, the film is rather sublte in approach. Not a lot of questions are answered and there is plenty of room for interpretation. Slade does an excellent job of not taking taking sides or presenting everything in black-and-white which I thought was admirable. He leaves it up to the viewer to form their own conclusions about what is being presented. Essentially, Hard Candy is an intense character study about identity, moral ambiguity and revenge although, one could argue that it isn't necessarily about any of those things at all.
Not enough can be said about Ellen Page's brilliant performance. Sure, Patrick Wilson is fantastic here but she completely steals the show. Page makes this challenging role seem like a piece of cake. I haven't seen her in anything else but if this film is any indication of her acting abilities, she definitely has a bright future ahead of her. At the beginning of the film she is calm, collected and plays it very sweet with a hint of charm. At the pivtoal turning point in the film there is a full reversal and we get to see a whole different side of the character where Page really stretches her acting abilities. Much like Haley, Ellen Page does seem quite mature for her age Even if the subject matter turns you away, this film is worth a viewing for Ellen Page's performance alone which stands as one of the strongest of 2005.