Thursday, July 3, 2008

Short Take: Hard Candy

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Ellen Page, in her starring debut, is the main point of interest in Hard Candy. It’s a horror film about a psychotic teenager (Page) who turns the tables on a sexual-predator photographer (Patrick Wilson). Most of the film is an extended torture scene, with the Page character spraying household cleansers in the photographer’s mouth, jolting him with a stun gun under running water, and interminably terrorizing him with the prospect of being castrated. Page and Wilson do solid work, with Page showing a striking knack for understatement, but the film is an extremely unsophisticated piece of narrative. One wonders if the director, David Slade, was much interested in the film as a story. The professionalism of the performances aside, it often comes across as an extended film-school exercise in cinematic color design. Slade’s intent seems to be to use color in the distinctive, highly composed manner of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert and Blow-Up--he includes homages to both films--and this ugly, one-track script was the only story that was handy. One is always aware of the color design in the shots, but no emotional effect seems intended. Slade also lacks Antonioni’s compositional inventiveness, so the use of color becomes monotonous and repetitive. His approaches to staging and editing are even more limited. He often seems afraid to let the action play out in front of the camera. The characters, although the script has them in proximity to each other at almost all times, are rarely in the same shot, and Slade often just cuts from close-up to close-up as the actors deliver their lines. One can argue that the staccato rhythm created by this cutting scheme emphasizes a sense of confrontation, but Slade sticks to this approach even when it works against the scenes. The opening sequence in the coffee shop, as well as the initial scene in the photographer’s home, are scripted to show a developing rapport between the characters. One might think this would call for Page and Wilson to act together in the same shot, so their performing rhythms can create a sense of harmony between the characters. But Slade doesn't seem able to relax enough to let the movie breathe this way, so one is stuck watching ping-ponging close-ups of the actor’s faces. Ultimately, the film's only drama comes from shock value. It's an exercise in arty bad taste.

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