Jeff (Patrick Wilson) is a thirtysomething photographer and Hayley (Ellen Page) is a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. They have been communicating via an internet chatroom and make plans to meet up, which they do, in a local cafe where Hayley feels safe. They both put on airs of confidence for one another's benefit, and as a goodwill gesture not only does Jeff buy Hayley her coffee but a Nighthawks T-shirt as well. Hayley is interested in his photography and persuades him to take her back to his home - but did Jeff really need that much coaxing? Once at the house, they share a drink, and after admiring the pictures on his wall Hayley asks him how many of his models he has slept with; he answers only one and it could be he still carries a torch for her. The schoolgirl then asks him to take a few photographs of her, and Jeff fetches his camera... but he's beginning to feel oddly unwell...
During the 2000s a strain of horror movies and thrillers arrived that took great delight in placing the emphasis on torture, and one of these was Hard Candy which although not gory made many audiences feel uncomfortable. Scripted by TV writer and this film's co-producer Brian Nelson, it looks at first glance to be pandering to the "String 'em up before they have a chance to do anything" brigade, with a hefty portion of the "Evidence? Who needs evidence when suspicion is good enough?" point of view stirred in for good measure. But while a more ambiguous approach might have made for a more provocative and thought provoking story, Nelson is happy to resolve everything with a pat ending making it clear who we should be siding with.
What's the matter with Jeff? Well, he's had something slipped into his drink by Hayley that has knocked him out and when he comes to he is distressed to find himself all tied up in a swivel chair. Essentially a two hander for the greater part of the running time, director David Slade is lucky to have Wilson and Page as they manage to keep the audience guessing as to who the real villain is, although don't seem to contemplate that they might both be villains in their own way. Hayley has fooled Jeff into welcoming her into his home, and like a vampire she can now prey on him - but why? There has been a missing girl in the headlines, Hayley is convinced that Jeff killed her and that he is in fact a predatory paedophile, and the evidence is looking to be in her favour judging by the way he has acted, apparently the behaviour of a smooth talking danger to teenage girls.
So what does Hayley want from him? His suffering, for a start as she taunts him about his work with young models and his affection for (or is it resentment towards?) the only model he claims he had sex with. When she works out the combination to his safe, she finds a damning photograph of the missing girl taken recently outside the cafe, and if she had any doubts before she doesn't have any now. After an escape attempt goes wrong, wrong for Jeff at any rate, he wakes again tied to a table and mounting horror as he realises what the determined Hayley has in store for him. As well acted as all this is, and well photographed by Jo Willems into the bargain, it fudges the most interesting point it raises, if indeed it raises it consciously. That is, are violent fantasies about people who you believe thoroughly deserve to be attacked or even killed more legitimate than the violent fantasies of sociopaths who harm innocents? Or are both frames of mind equally abhorrent? As it is, Hard Candy simply finishes up with an exploitation movie flourish, and I'd be concerned about someone who was especially overenthusiastic about the film, no matter which character they backed until the twist. Or after, for that matter, there's more than a hint of the sado-masochistic about it all. Music by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman.
[The extras-packed DVD includes two commentaries and some featurettes to give fans plenty to chew over.]