Thursday, June 18, 2015

Hard Candy

This film is everything every independent film should aspire to be. I saw this film for the first time because I had just seen An American Crime and I was looking for another movie with Ellen Page. I had no idea that this movie would lead to Ellen Page becoming my favorite actress, that I would be blown away the acting genius who is Patrick Wilson, and that I would fully appreciate what a low budget film with nothing more than great acting, creative directing, and a thrilling story could accomplish.

Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson deserve Oscars for their performance in this movie. For a little over an hour and a half they are able to captivate an audience without a set larger than a few rooms or the assistance of any other characters, let alone special effects.

Ellen’s role as a sixteen-year-old girl who turns the tables on her would be predator is really a story of two roles. For the first half hour she sells the audience on her performance as a naïve, oblivious teenage girl who will do anything to impress mid-thirties Patrick Wilson, only to drop the charade and reveal her true character’s nature as a “cute, vindictive, little bitch.” Her transition from naïve to manipulative is an incredible transition that most actors in Hollywood could not pull off, which makes it all the more impressive that it’s coming from eighteen-year-old Page. Her performance throughout the film is one of the most honest I’ve ever witnessed and the credits might as well say that Ellen Page never appears in this film but that Hayley is cast as herself. Not only is her character entirely believable but the range of emotions and the depth of her character is incredible; she is a combination of weakness, power, anger, sadistic joy, and sarcasm rolled into one. This range is fully displayed when she pretends to become reassured by Wilson that he will not punish her if she releases him. This movie, not Juno, marks the launch of her success as an actress.

As fantastic as Page is in this movie, Patrick Wilson is arguably superior. His role as a thirty-something predator in disguise presents a challenge for any actor and Wilson more than delivers. He begins the movie as a coy, flirtatious, and confident man whose witty charm is only unsettling when the audience realizes it is being directed toward an adolescent girl. Just as Page transforms over the course of the movie, so too does Wilson. From a suave and seemingly innocent stranger Wilson becomes a helpless captive who plays with our sympathies and then, once his true nature is revealed, violent and emotional. Yet even as his character develops, peeling back the layers of his innocence to expose himself as a monster, Wilson’s performance continues to project the sympathies that make his character so complex. What makes this movie so compelling is the conflict the audience should feel between condemning Wilson’s character for being a pedophile and their sympathy for the terrible situation he is in at the hands of Page; much of this conflict is owed to Wilson’s ability to sell the audience on his character.

Part of the brilliance of this movie should be credited to the screenwriter Brian Nelson. One unique aspect of this film is the nature of the dialogue between Page and Wilson. As the story of Wilson’s alleged pedophilia and potential acts of murder unfolds, the audience is left wondering which character is the real monster. At first Wilson seems the obvious monster as Page confronts him about giving alcohol to a minor and being drugged by teenage flesh. “Busted.” But the audience’s judgement becomes muddled as Wilson attempts, through his dialogue, to convince the audience first of his innocence then that he is undeserving of his punishment. The audience is caught between an epic tug of war between Page and Wilson that leaves the matter of whether justice was served unresolved. While the performances from Page and Wilson are the drivers of the story, the intense and clever writing of Nelson is its vehicle.

From the opening scene, director David Slade introduces us to the types of innovative methods rarely used in mainstream movies; the decision to have the camera swivel and zoom in during the IM’ing between Page and Wilson, the early reference to Lensman319 which carries significant relevance later, and the symbolic use of red and blue in the text. This first scene is representative of Slade’s brilliant directing throughout the film; he takes an ordinary and functional plot device (an IM chat which tells the audience that Page and Wilson have a flirtatious relationship and are making plans to meet for the first time) and very effectively enhances the audience’s interest with his camera work. The gradual zooming in and lingering on particular lines of text provides an eerie and unsettling feeling that contrasts with the flirtatious tone of what Page and Wilson are typing. From the beginning of the movie the audience is held captive by the tension between these two characters and the uncertainty of what will happen next. This initial camera work subtly highlights that tension in the same way that creepy music enhances the audience’s feelings of suspense in a horror movie. That Slade is able to achieve the same effect with the way he uses his camera is a testament to his directing abilities in this film.

We see this same subtle affect also with his use of colors, mainly red and blue, throughout the film to manipulate the audience’s emotions. These colors appear in many forms; the color of page’s jacket is red and Wilson’s shirt is blue, the colors of the walls in Wilson’s house are various shades of red and blue, and the camera lens at times takes on either a reddish or bluish tint. Slade appears to have two uses for these colors, the first being representations of the characters themselves. Page wears red which is the color of passion, anger, love, etc. all emotions that she displays throughout the film as she seeks to exact revenge on Wilson. There is also a possible correlation between Page’s character and that of Little Red Ridinghood who likewise enters the lair of the wolf except in Page’s case not unknowingly. Wilson’s character on the other hand wears blue: a much cooler and calmer color than red and representative of the cool innocence he desperately clings to not only in an attempt to convince Page but also to reassure himself that he is not a monster.  Slade also uses these same emotional associations with red and blue to provide an added layer of emotional depth to each scene: most notably when Wilson reaches his emotional eclipse and goes after Page with a knife only to finally embrace his identity as a monster, the backdrop of this scene is the blood-red walls behind him which he actually engages with when he begins stabbing the picture on the wall. This scene is one of many where the color transcends its role as just a symbolic reflection of the emotions being displayed and becomes a part of the scene itself. Another example is the way the camera acquires a blue filter in the scenes where Page is interrogating Wilson. The blue is more than just a color in that scene or a representation of Wilson’s cool demeanor in the face of her questions, it becomes the visual gateway of how we are to view the characters, dialogue, and emotions in that moment. For the sake of this film colors are more than mere symbolism they are a roadmap for how we are to follow and decipher the emotional rollercoaster this film takes us on. While the story of a girl who holds a potential pedophile hostage and threatens to castrate him is already an interesting story, Slade’s clever use of camera work (zooming, fade outs, his choices of how to transition from one scene to the next, etc.) and his creative manipulation of colors are part of what makes this movie the pinnacle of independent films.

One final element of Slade’s directing in this film that is worth noting is his use of close-ups. Slade uses more close-ups in this film than I have ever seen in another. The audience is frequently shown the faces of Page and Wilson, bringing every detail of their emotions to the forefront of the screen. For most movies this technique would not only not work, but it would give audiences a headache or it would reveal the limitations of the actor in question. The reason it works so well here is because this film only takes place in one building with only two characters and therefore requires techniques such as this to keep the audience interested. It also works because Page and Wilson not only stand up to such a level of scrutiny but this technique actually becomes a showcase for displaying how completely immersed they are in their roles. Credit should be given to Slade for taking this risk and for its successful execution.

The greatest independent film and one of the best films in general I have ever seen. This movie reminds me of Casablanca on a lesser scale because of how well executed it is across the board: acting, directing, screenplay, etc. Films like this which don’t require CGI or even more than a limited set and a couple actors are a refreshing reminder of how much film can do with so little. Hard Candy is exceptional because it does not rely on special effects to maintain the audience’s interest but instead, like movies before the 1980s, makes use of great acting and directing. This film should be a reminder that audiences can appreciate the nuances of film (acting and directing) and be more than the simple minded and attention deficit masses that filmmakers like James Cameron and Michael Bay assume them to be. Whether an audience is consciously aware of all the directing techniques at play or fully appreciates the level of acting in this film, these elements enhance this film nonetheless and make it the masterpiece that it is.

Grade: WRAP: 100%

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