Film » Film Review

Bait and switch

Little red riding hood takes the wolf; plus a great film about Townes van Zandt


What big eyes she has. Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson in Hard Candy - PHOTO BY MARK LOWRY/LIONS GATE
  • Photo by Mark Lowry/Lions Gate
  • What big eyes she has. Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson in Hard Candy
I walked out of Hard Candy with very mixed feelings, knowing that, for all of its button-pushing and cringe-making, the movie was unsatisfactory to the point of being reprehensible. At a loss for the single perfect adjective to describe Hard Candy, I turned to the film's official production notes for ideas. In the first sentence I encountered, I was informed that this film, directed by David Slade, is a "psychotic thriller."

I'm not sure I've ever seen a psychotic thriller, or for that matter an epileptic Western or a bipolar sex comedy. What kind of movie might be a psychotic thriller? Un Chien Andalou, perhaps, or anything by David Lynch, but not Hard Candy.

Issues of diagnostic adjectives aside, in reading the notes I discovered that this tale of a teen girl turning the tables on her would-be adult predator is the result of an idea by David Higgins, the film's producer. Higgins read news accounts of Japanese girls luring adult men into promised sexual encounters and then attacking them. Understandably intrigued, he turned to a professional playwright who devised a narrative in the form of a classic stage two-hander like Mastrosimone's Extremities. Higgins then recruited Slade, an expert creator of television commercials, to direct. Finally, he hired two excellent but little-known actors to play the leads.

Once assembled, what do these ingredients produce? The single adjective I was looking for: "synthetic."

To be sure, Hard Candy is a flashily designed, tightly written and passionately acted thriller that picks all the scabs of our pornified culture, over-wise kids and sexually infantile adults. But I believed almost none of it, finally concluding that the film was less interested in exploring the perilous demimonde of human sexuality than in exploiting it in the service of disposable entertainment. When, late in the film, the teen protagonist asks with a sneer, "Was I born a cute vindictive little bitch or did society make me that way?" one realizes that not only does the film lack an answer to that question, it doesn't really care.

Taking place over the course of an afternoon, Hard Candy tells the story of Jeff, a suavely metrosexual, 30-ish photographer and Hayley, a much-too-bright 14-year-old who wears a pageboy haircut and a little red riding hoodie. For weeks they'd been flirting online, with the oh-so-subtle handles Thonggirl14 and Lensman319, with sexual innuendo mixed in with chat about Zadie Smith and the latest bands. In an excellent opening scene, the two finally meet for a date at a Los Angles coffee house. Jeff (Patrick Wilson) is a well-groomed creative professional, easy in his manner and twinkly-eyed behind his designer frames. Hayley (Ellen Page) is a boyish girl who reads big books and talks like an adult. While Page and Wilson play the scene with a mixture of bravado and nerves, Slade's direction is composed almost entirely of extreme close-ups of the two performers, just the way French directors shot their cafe scenes in the 1960s. The scene ends with a genuine jolt of surprise--a small shock that the rest of the film can't match, despite the introduction of blades, a taser gun and a garbage compactor.

The advance promotion for the film has already revealed that Hayley will take Jeff prisoner in his own home, and indeed, the promises of of extreme violence are realized (though the gore is almost entirely off-screen). While there is one major development that I should refrain from divulging, the problem with this film is that there is so little to report on the final two-thirds of the story, even as Jeff's possible involvement in the murder of another teenaged girl is raised.

Although Slade's visual panache goes unabated and the performances of Page and Wilson are nothing if not committed, for a film like this to work there must be a series of revelations that reverse and re-reverse the power relationships between the two characters. But in Hard Candy, Hayley the Avenging Grrrl is in almost completely uninterrupted control, offering cool, movie-dialogue ripostes to every verbal parry by Jeff. Never mind the implausibility of a 95-pound 14-year-old maintaining such physical, intellectual and emotional command of a terribly frightening situation--that could be forgiven if Hayley were given any kind of reasonable psychological backstory. Instead, information about her is withheld--intentionally and perversely so--so that she becomes little more than a sadistic, motiveless vigilante, or, in her own words, "a cute vindictive little bitch."

All of this is not to say that the film lets Jeff off the hook (so to speak). There's no question that he pursues underaged girls, and the film reveals other unsavory facts about him as well. Although Jeff doesn't deserve any sympathy, it's clear at long last that the film is being made from his point of view. In reviewing the credits for the film, one is struck by the fact that the producer, screenwriter and director are all middle-aged men, and the male protagonist, a successful Los Angeles-based creator of slick visual images, is a projection of themselves. Make no mistake, Hard Candy is a reflection of male anxiety over lusting after too-young girls and the worst possible punishment they could receive for it. The fact of the male point of view doesn't disqualify Hard Candy from serious artistic ambition any more than it disqualifies Lolita. But Lolita was relentless in its depiction of desire, self-delusion and the slow destruction of a young woman. The men of Hard Candy, on the other hand, see young women as objects of fascination and terror but not as human beings.

It's fitting, and not surprising, that the inspiration for Hard Candy came from a Japanese news item, because its form and content recalls a better and scarier film from that country: the notorious slice-and-dicer Audition, in which a woman gets cauterizing revenge on a man who would exploit her. In this Takashi Miike film, there's no evasion of responsibility and no beating around the bush: While we may be horrified by the bloody excruciations of Audition, the pain feels necessary and organic. In Hard Candy, by contrast, the blood work is kept off-screen, a symptom of the film's ultimate phoniness and lack of faith. While the filmmakers keep their hands clean of any blood, the characters never come clean about their dirty desires.

This Friday, the Galaxy Cinema in Cary will open one of the best documentaries at last year's Full Frame fest, an extraordianry record of artistic misery and genius called Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes van Zandt.

When Van Zandt died in 1997, it was a jarring reminder that some people--most people, perhaps--never manage to climb to the high ground of comfort and safety in their lives. At the time of his death, Van Zandt was 52 years old and still a cult performer who struggled to keep his recordings in print. But oh what a cult he had: Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Gillian Welch, Jack White, Beck, Bob Dylan and Sonic Youth are all among the acolytes, and many of them appear in Margaret Brown's loving and ultimately devastating film.

Van Zandt was a Texas-born singer and songwriter whose renown in his lifetime was due to other, more famous musicians recording his songs. His most famous song, "Pancho and Lefty," was a huge hit for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, but he wrote many other brilliant tales of life gone wrong, including "Be Here to Love Me," "Waiting Around to Die," "Tecumseh Valley" and "Kathleen."

As might be surmised by the youthfulness of Van Zandt at his demise, his problems were manifold, compounded and exacerbated by an unquenchable need for alcohol. As we learn in Brown's film, Van Zandt was born into a wealthy but eccentric Texas oil family. But in a fashion reminiscent of medieval visionaries like St. Francis of Assissi, he seemed destined to suffer without the comforts of his upbringing. When he was in his early 20s, he fell four stories out of a window and sustained head injuries that included the loss of his childhood memories. After a half-hearted effort at leading a normal life with a normal wife, he began a 30-year odyssey of artistic achievement and ghastly squalor.

Brown is a young filmmaker, and her commitment to her subject is intense. She employs the expected talking head interviews (with Guy Clark being especially charming), and intersperses Super 8 footage from Linklater vet Lee Daniel, shot grimy-South style through the windshield of a moving truck.

Brown's biggest archival discovery, however, is incredible: She located never-used 16mm footage of Van Zandt from the early 1970s, when he had released a couple of records but was encamped in a miserable Texas trailer park. That filmmaker followed young Townes around as he clowned mirthlessly with his girlfriend and a hanger-on or two, all while carrying a bottle of hooch and a gun. How does the girlfriend feel about her life with such a tormented genius, the filmmaker asks. It really sucks, she says.

Later in this tableau of trailer park bohemia, Van Zandt sings a song for his neighbors. In the background, an elderly black man weeps through the final verse:

Now I'm out of prison

I got me a friend at last

He don't drink or steal or cheat or lie

His name's codeine

He's the nicest thing I've seen

Together we're gonna wait around and die

Together we're gonna wait around and die

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