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Movies for the Resistance: Hard Candy

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson and Sandra Oh
Directed by: David Slade
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 2006

 

Last week, actress Ellen Page added her voice to the chorus of those who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood. She wasn’t the first to step forward, but she was among the most eloquent, and the casual nature of director Brett Ratner’s odious behavior towards her evinces the depth and extent of the problem. An entire industry’s dirty laundry – the sort of evil that everyone knew about, but no one dared speak out loud – has suddenly come spilling into the harsh light of day. Page’s Facebook statement simply affirmed the extent of the stench.

The current wave of sexual abuse scandals rocking Tinseltown has merged almost seamlessly with similar misogynistic horrors emerging from Washington. Donald Trump’s violence towards, and contempt for, women is a universally acknowledged fact – among his followers, it’s an active selling point – and now we have Roy Moore, whose reported molestation of a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s has not yet derailed his campaign. No matter the place or time, powerful men take advantage of the powerless, and that too often means sexual advances from women in no position to refuse.

This shouldn’t happen. Not anywhere. Not ever.

Page’s statement also resonated in part because of Hard Candy, the film that announced her arrival as a significant talent, and which predated the awful experiences she recounted on the set of X-Men 3. The film concerns a pedophile, Jeff (Patrick Wilson), whose current target Hayley (Page) has actually laid a gruesome trap for him. At the time, it seemed like a slightly exploitative exercise in suspense (though it worked amazingly well, thanks in no small part to the leads). But now it serves as something more: a harsh reminder that we always knew about the Weinsteins and the Ratners and the Bill Cosbys and the Woody Allens. We knew… and we didn’t do a thing.

Hard Candy’s power stems from a very smart script, both in terms of the details and in the chilling plausibility of the scenario. Wilson’s Jeff doesn’t come across as creepy or overbearing or weird, at least not at first. He actually seems like a pretty nice guy: a little embarrassed at making a “connection” with a girl half his age, and as unsure as she is on how to proceed. Hayley plays the precocious tweener to the core: terribly bright, but a little unsure of herself and eager to taste life as a woman.

Of course, her little-girl-lost routine is just that: a routine. Beneath it lies a coldly patient mind that has watched this particular monster for quite some time. She has a number of pointed questions for him, and if getting the answers means drugging him, tying him up, and using him to discover what all the settings on the taser do, then so be it.

Let the wild rumpus start.

The pacing of the film lends a sense of the inevitable to it. The two of them square off in his apartment, more or less behind closed doors, and the suddenly lethal consequences of their battle are more garnish than main course. The meat of the drama lies in their exchanges: the way Hayley slowly tightens the noose while Jeff fights madly to escape it. He’s fighting uphill, and the film’s breathless rabbit punches simply provide a little release to a foregone conclusion.

I used to have a minor quibble with that: a small flaw in a very impressive piece of filmmaking. I thought it gave the heroine too much power too early, eliminating some of the tension. Watching it again, however, that seems far more feature than bug. And while it loses some steam in the suspense department, that’s not necessarily a flaw. The film doesn’t want to be a cat-and-mouse game so much as a confession.

And again, Jeff doesn’t feel like anyone’s idea of a pederast. He’s a successful photographer, with a swanky house and a hefty bank account. He initially appears to be the last person on earth to launch an inappropriate flirtation with a clearly underage girl. The film peels him back like an onion, revealing the void at his core step by step. It starts with so many of the subjects in his photographs – young models, barely older than Hayley, shot for the covers of magazines we pass in the supermarket every day. Then there are rumblings about an ex-girlfriend, whom he believes still owes him something despite being long gone. We push past each curtain to find something increasingly horrible waiting behind it, going further down the rabbit hole until the extent of his ugliness is laid bare.

Jeff doesn’t acknowledge the full extent of his crimes all at once. Hayley pulls it out of him step by agonizing step: relishing his torment but acting with a specific end goal in mind. If you’ve followed any of these recent sex abuse scandals dominating the news, you can spot the patterns pretty clearly. It starts by trying to dismiss the accusation as ridiculous. Then it moves to an array of smaller confessions, growing increasingly nasty in scope. Each one is intended to bring the proceedings to a halt: to protect the accused against far more sinister crimes lurking deeper beneath the surface. So Jeff goes from “Sure, I take pictures of young women, but is that a crime?” to “yes, I made some mistakes, but it’s no big deal,” to “I’m sick and I need help.” Never once does he speak about the people he hurt. Never once does he referring to the damage he might have caused someone else. There’s even a moment of exquisite entitlement when he claims he’s being tortured… only to be shown exactly, precisely, what real torture is all about. (And by the end, we’re left with little doubt about his guilt.)

And therein lies the film’s irony: Hayley literally has to torture him to get it all out of him. In an age where the President of the United States casually confesses to rape on camera and gets elected anyway, her vengeance takes on increased potency. She delivers it slowly, methodically and with a dark answer for every one of Jeff’s evasive justifications. She cuts off every escape route one by one, until Jeff finally has to face the music. Director David Slate doesn’t relish the gorier details, but neither does he shy away from their psychological impact. You rarely see a heroine so terrifyingly cold as this one, and that’s kind of the point. Hayley’s iciness comes not from some psychosis or mental break on her part, but because extreme measures are horrifically necessary to get to the truth she seeks.

Page’s statement from earlier this week lends further sting to the scenario. The actress makes clear when the character understood implicitly, and which her brilliant performance hammers home. This is nothing new. We just tell ourselves it’s normal. We’ve become so saturated with it that it barely raises eyebrows anymore… until one sudden moment when the floodgates burst and the whole stinking mess of it comes vomiting into the open.

We don’t get off that easy, not any of us. We can’t pretend that this is some great shock. Regardless of how the various sex scandals crowding the news cycle turn out, it’s clear that we need to do a hell of a lot better in a hell of a lot of ways to root out such a systematic horror show. Hard Candy serves as a brutal reminder of that fact: using the trappings of revenge cinema to deliver a badly needed shock to the system. It cuts deep, but only because it has to. The rot it reveals goes straight to the bone.

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