Though reportedly inspired by actual events in Japan, Hard Candy‘s real Land of the Rising Sun influence is Takashi Miike’s Audition, whose gender-warfare finale is stretched to feature length and given a kiddie-porn twist in David Slade’s pedophile-versus-pedophile-slaying nymphet thriller. A schlockfest dressed up in sleek designer duds that feigns gruesome violence and flounders with psychological power dynamics, music video vet Slade’s directorial debut desperately tries to shock and disturb by exploiting male fears of castration and feminine revenge fantasies, both of which form the crux of his story about the torturous tête-à-tête between 32-old photographer Jeff (Patrick Wilson) and 14-year-old student Hayley (Ellen Page).
Having developed an innuendo-laden online relationship, the two meet at a coffee shop, where Jeff refers to his new friend as “baby,” wipes chocolate off her pouting lips, and reveals himself to be a bona fide perv. Only too happy to lap up her mature beau’s affections, Hayley—when not portentously referencing Jean Seberg—flashes Jeff a quick peek at her shirtless frame in a bathroom doorway, then asks him to bow down and “worship” her in an empty parking lot. When the inappropriate couple returns to Jeff’s home—decorated with blown-up snapshots of half-clothed pubescent girls—the predator-prey dynamic is quickly flipped on its head, and amateur genital vivisection, here we come!
Or not, since Hard Candy‘s calculated intimations of bloodshed are, like everything else about this faux-grrrl power fiasco, just phony posturing. With Hayley revealed to be an avenging angel of death intent on punishing Jeff for his supposed involvement in another girl’s disappearance, writer Brian Nelson’s story aggressively attempts to subvert his audience’s ethical bearings, calling into question which of its two noxious characters is worthy of sympathy (and/or revulsion). Were Hayley something more than a ridiculously cunning manifestation of misogynistic male nightmares (she even knows Jeff’s neighbors’ daily routines!), this narrative conceit might have frighteningly blurred the line between victim and villain. Yet the filmmakers make their female antihero (a Little Red Riding Hood hunting a Big Bad Wolf) so cartoonishly diabolical that, despite a fiendish performance by Page, moral dilemmas become moot, as Hayley and Jeff prove equally repugnant and, thus, equally deserving of every last slice, snip, and slur they suffer.
Juvenile provocation for provocation’s sake, Hard Candy delights in its stylishly deviant material—in which squishy-sounding mutilation and garbage disposal testicle-grinding occurs in an icy, claustrophobic apartment characterized by sharp architectural angles and symbolic primary colors—while both pulling its ghastly punches and failing to exhibit the devilish irony of an American Psycho or the meta accusations of a Funny Games. Consequently, it’s just a wannabe exploitation flick bereft of brains and balls.