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Hard Candy

It's almost impossible to discuss the punishing psycho-thriller Hard Candy (2005) beyond its first 25 minutes without spoiling some evil surprises. So let's just say that it opens like this: Two anonymous online chatters — "Lensman319" and "Thonggrrrl 14" — agree to meet at a coffee shop to "hook up." "Thonggrrrl" turns out to be a jittery 14-year-old honor student named Hayley (Ellen Page) who wears a little red hoodie. "Lensman" turns out to be a thirtysomething photographer named Jeff (Patrick Wilson) with a smarmy, barely-concealed lust for underage girls. Their coffee-shop conversation is one of the more skin-crawly interactions to be seen in a movie in a good long while, and everything — from Jeff's too-smooth manner to Hayley's woman-child naiveté to the brightly lit close-ups of faces and forks cutting cakes — is designed to unsettle by writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade. Jeff, who's been courting Hayley online for three weeks, uses all the advantages of adulthood against her, buying her gifts and giving her a ride to his way-too-tidy house in his child's toy of a Cooper Mini. There are photos on Jeff's wall of young female models. There is music and dancing. Minors are plied with alcohol. Pictures are taken. And then, a la Wolf Creek, the screen goes dark — and the movie changes into something tricky and merciless. The remainder of Hard Candy deals in wince-inducing surgery, revealed secrets, power struggles, surprise twists, and no-win ultimatums. As in the original permutations of another, older story featuring a girl in a red hood, the lines between predator and prey blur when both parties turn out to be cunning. Unfortunately, the story does lose quite a bit of its queasy power as the revelations start piling up, and there's so much monologuing by Hayley and Jeff that you wonder if Nelson's script wasn't first written for the stage. But Page (who subsequently appeared as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand) is an amazing find. Hayley seems to be played by several different actresses, depending on how far the camera is from Page's face. (Actually, it's a credit to both her and Nelson that they can sell overcooked lines like "Playtime is over — now it's time to wake up.") Meanwhile, Slade demonstrates a gift for making audience members cover their body parts in sympathy, even though he reveals very little actual blood. Despite the hot-button pedophilic story hook, Hard Candy ultimately beats with the heart of a stagier, more complicated psychological revenge picture — along the lines of Polanski's Death and the Maiden. And while the film's blunter, more thrillerish and sadistic second half is less unnerving than its bloodless first, it still works as a smarter-than-usual cat-and-mouse deathmatch. Lionsgate's DVD release offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio. Director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson deliver a commentary on one track, while stars Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson can be heard on a second one. Also on hand is the behind-the-scenes documentary "Creating Hard Candy" (51 min.), the featurette "Controversial Confection" (9 min.), six delete scenes with a "play all" option, a theatrical trailer, and the script and director's notebook as DVD-ROM content. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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