Whether at festival screenings or during its theatrical run, the filmmakers of Hard Candy found audiences divided into distinctive thirds: nay-sayers found the film to be exploitive and offensive; a shocked but intrigued segment needed a few days to gather their thoughts before formalizing their opinions; and supporters felt the film was an intelligent examination of repulsive human behaviour housed within the artifice of a thriller.
While most DVD extras tend to spotlight the actors, writer, or director of a film, it's the independent producer of Hard Candy that gets serious attention for germinating the original idea. As he recounts in the DVD's superb making-of documentary, David Higgins had already been involved in film production at other companies, and one day it occurred to him that a drama involving tables turned on a predator would make a great film, and launch his fledgling production company.
Higgins cites a news report of pedophiles in Japan being lured to locations after an online encounter, only to be beaten and brutalized by youths; the punishment was perfectly cruel, because the lone predator wouldn't be able to seek help without incriminating himself as a sexual abuser of minors.
The story of how that news item became what's essentially a two-character filmed play is noteworthy, because it also reveals what a producer can and should be: a hands-on executive who gathers the right talent, supervises and supports his team, and protects the integrity of the finished movie during the precarious stages of festival screenings, and finding distributors.
One could say the film would've had a life regardless of its artistic successes, but because so much care went into the script, selecting a director, and perfect casting, Hard Candy never became a sleazy exploitation B-movie for the video rental shelves. Perhaps of greater importance to mainstream viewers (and probably just as comforting) is British director David Slade's decision to leave the film's horrific moments up to the viewer's imagination and not show anything - an important omission, because the addition of graphic and prolonged sadism would've harmed the filmmakers' clear desire to smartly express arguments and messages about a subject that's already pretty icky.
Though his background is commercial production, Slade's feature film debut shows an astute awareness of how to choreograph emotions - something first-timers often flub because they focus on the look and style of their cinematic debut. Slade may also have realized that any visual style - images, and particularly editing - had to be reigned in because of the film's extraordinary performances from Ellen Page as the 14 year old seducer, Hayley, and Patrick Wilson as Jeff, the 32 year old photographer who shoots a bit more than wildlife pictures. (Sandra Oh's character is actually quite minor, and pretty much exists for a brief suspense tease patterned after William Wyler's The Collector.)
Slade's visual instincts mandated the frequent use of intimate close-ups to capture the subtext of the performances, plus clean, mellow colours and set decor that obviously mask Jeff's dirty side. Unsurprisingly, the film's more overtly disturbing shots occur in the coffee shop, where the two tease each other with cake, provocative looks, and peppery dialogue.
When Hayley decides to accept Jeff's invitation to his home, the presumption is there'll be a fight in the car, a trip to a decrepit house in the forest, and a waiting torture room - elements redolent of B-movies that show murderers and predators as people comporting and living in a state of physical decay. Jeff's moderne abode, nestled between neighbours and rose gardens, features a work-at-home studio where clients come for their photographs, and Jeff's work - adult and waifish girls - is mounted throughout the house. The impression is of a man without a secret, yet once the game of confession and castration begins, we know Hayley sees through the facade, and pegs Jeff as a careful predator with a hidden safe of trophies.
The battle of wits, exploitation of weaknesses, and control games dominate the final two-thirds of Hard Candy, and Slade's consistent use of subdued colours also pays off when he ratchets the danger level: Jeff photographs Hayley as she mock-strips and dances on the coffee table, while the room's primary red colours further disorient, anger, and accentuate his inevitable collapse and blackout from sensory overload, and a spiked drink.
Even more clever is the operation sequence in which no details are shown, yet Slade periodically tracks the camera around the cool-blue room, moving between two open doorways, and filling the screen with the red-painted hallway; the inference of gore is reduced to a single, powerful swatch, while clinical sound effects and Jeff's desperate dialogue is clipped by a focused and increasingly irritated Hayley.
Slade also used digital colorist Jean-Clement Soret (28 Days Later, City of Lost Children) with whom he'd worked on commercial projects, and in collaboration with other crew members, he ensures the film's look is crisp, clinical, yet oddly comforting; it's a commercial design that resembles idyllic snapshots from an architecture magazine or design showcase, but the performances are what ultimately draw us into the drama.
There are two specific moments, however, where the screenplay waddles into jarring melodrama: the black and white moral arguments thrust at Jeff by Hayley after he's awoken, tied to a chair; and the finale on the roof, in which Hayley identifies herself as a kind of avatar seeking revenge for all the molested children and youths in the world of time immemorial.
Although she's introduced as a girl too smart for her age, her inability to see grey between straight black & white moral stances is explained by writer Brian Nelson in the film's excellent writer and director commentary track: teenage girls lack the life experiences to see beyond monochrome morals, so their arguments and defenses come off as naive because they accept nothing less than the absolute. That's Nelson's take as a writer and father, but his implementation of that rationale does make some of Hayley's verbal missives too perfect in summing up the flaws that lie beneath Jeff's clean persona, and the social evils of our era.
Her final speech, describing herself to a perplexed Jeff as a living entity of vengeance, also ill-affects the mystery storyline of a missing girl, and while there's ultimately some closure to that strand, her dialogue comes off as a leadened sermon wrapping up moral arguments we've already begun to assess for ourselves.
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Maple's DVD smartly gives us everything we need to know about Hard Candy's genesis and production - including Slade's production diaries in the DVD-ROM section - although for those who loathed the film, none of it will likely matter. Those sharing a measure of admiration or confusion - like theatrical audiences - will find the extras of great benefit.
In addition to the conception, production and post-production aspects, the disc's superior making-of featurettes also examine the film's marketing phase - including trailer construction and the brilliant poster art - and the use of sound (music, ambient tones, and effects). The original score by Molly Nyman (daughter of Michael) and Harry Escott runs around 9 mins., but it's very effective when it creeps into the soundtrack.
The actor's commentary track with Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson, while consistent, focuses primarily on performances and characters, whereas the director and writer track gives a thorough overview of the production, with the film's grim and disturbing concepts often buoyed by some wry British wit and bouts of absurdism.
There's surprisingly little content replication among the DVD's extras (a major plus), and those key deleted scenes and extensions discussed in the commentaries are also included in a separate gallery, rounding out a well-produced DVD. The film's transfer is equally first-rate, and this is one production whose visual style would make an ideal high-definition release, as Jo Willems' cinematography beautifully plays with the density and saturation of colours.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan