Hard Candy is a film about paedopilia- the first image we see of the film is a computer screen on which a fourteen year old girl and a thirty two year old man are chatting, we just see the text and we know that this relationship should not exist. The fourteen year old girl and the man agree to meet at a cafe- they flirt- they joke about chocolate cakes- the man buys the girl a T shirt, the girl flashes her bra at him- she compliments his car- he compliments her on how mature she is- he charms, she yields or that's how the story grimly runs- only not in this film, not in this film. For in this film something else happens. They go back to his house. The man pours a glass for the girl, she turns it down saying you should never drink a drink someone else pours. She pours him a drink and the screen goes dark... and then we find out that Hayley is a girl on a mission, she is crazy, insane but the headline waiting to happen isn't the headline about paedophile abuse, its a headline about something else- about revenge for everyone that he has ever tormented. She has his measure- "you were speaking to me so selflessly, you don't want me to castrate you for my own benefit". There are uncomfortable lines here- "I am not fucking livestock./You keep telling yourself that, stud."
In some ways this plays as a better, darker version of Interview. Whereas Interview played idly with the conflict between two individuals- one of whom was bessotted with the other- this film goes further, goes darker. There is no question that during the scenes of torture, and almost none of them involve any actual violence or blood- everything here is imagined, that the paedophile is going through incredible suffering. He is literally panting and animalistically grunting and screaming. Hayley on the other hand is cruel- she is coldly vindictive- she uses every witty put down in the book. She smashes into his arrogance- the arrogance of a handsome man- throwing back his sins into his face. This is a battle of manipulators- the clever Paedophile, so expert at getting fourteen year olds into bed- comes up against this fourteen year old and faces intellectual as well as physical anihilation. "Why don't you just kill me?" he asks, we know the answer- because that would not be enough. Capitol Punishment is too easy for a paedophile- far better set up a camera and force him to watch his own mutilation.
This raises hard questions- some of them involving the sheer nastiness of the film's subject matter. But more what it raises are questions about this scenario- not only is this a young girl taking her revenge on a paedophile but there are potentially disturbing subtexts here, some of which are explored by Roger Ebert here and the Flick Filosopher here. At one point, she says 'I wonder why they don't teach this [castration] at girl's scout camp...this would be really useful'. Its a darkly ominous comment. Does he deserve it though? Does he deserve this pain, does he deserve being directed to eunuch'squestion.com and to have a young girl talk about literally bouncing his testicles around? This film is really really cruel- Hayley takes a delight in humiliating and torturing the man. She enjoys every minute- again can we be pleased to see that kind of enjoyment? We should remember though that our sympathies are with him and not Hayley in part because we see him as a victim- but not his victims as victims. We don't hear their screams. We hear his.
But still that doesn't answer why we feel sympathy with him? I do not think its entirely about the torture- I feel no sympathy for Tarentino characters. I think though this character obtains our sympathy less because of the torture he undergoes than because of the mental torture he undergoes. His life is thrown back at him, his words turn like dogs upon their master. He is prosecuted in a court where he faces a lawyer who is more powerful than him and more adept and what is more, the verdict is presumed guilty. There is a justice in the film but it is a brute justice- you harm the perpetrator and there is no holding back. Hayley basically tells us that this man deserves not merely death but torture- he deserves not merely punishment but recrimination beyond the point of punishment to the point where it becomes not judicious but vindictive. This is vindictiveness- once he has entered into this process- in a Kafkaesque way it matters little if he is guilty, it matters that he is merely there. He is guilty of course- but still tied in that Kafkaesque world- he is no innocent, he is definitely a paedophile but the question this asks, just like the earlier and greater film on the same topic M asks, is whether a paedophile deserves a 'normal' punishment or whether any sin deserves a 'normal' punishment.
That works because of the work done by the actors- both Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson deserve praise here. Page's work is truly astounding- she not merely acts everyone else off the stage- she draws easy comparisons with Natalie Portman and then surpasses them. This announces her as a future presence in cinema- and hopefully she will not like Portman has, take the route to decay, Starwars and the Other Boleyn Girl. Wilson as the man has an equally difficult job, portraying a Paedophile as a person. Like Peter Lorre in M, he attempts to make us see the whole figure of this ghastly human being and he succeeds- you cannot see this man as a caricature, an evil monster- you see him as a man, a terrible horrible man, a sleazy slimeball but a man nonetheless. That acheivement is important- both of these actors have to be on their best form to make this film work in anyway and thankfully they both are.
Where the film fails is that in my view, it occasionally goes over the top. In truth the last twenty minutes should have been compressed- by the time we have him facing the dilemma of death or publicity, we have everything we really need- and then the director and writer should have sought to bring it to a close. This film would have been more powerful at 80 and not 104 minutes- but even so at its best it is powerful and interesting. The torture goes over the top, especially towards the end, but especially in the conversational segments in the beggining and middle of the film, this film captures something. Better than Interview, at its best it has the same format- a conversation. Poorer than M, at its best it aspires to the same themes- about punishment, politics and power. If it matches Interview it must be good, it doesn't match M it still is worth watching, for the power of the performances, if not for the restraint of the director.