When Charles Bronson died someone should have shredded the blueprint for the revenge flick and sprinkled the confetti in his crypt. It's a distasteful genre, showcasing frustrated victims who get "justice" by stooping to the same lows (and often lower) as their guilty targets. Hard Candy is the latest film to embrace the vigilante storyline, and while it shows occasional bursts of stylish originality, it's ultimately yet another nasty exercise in score-settling sadism.
Hard Candy opens with an innuendo-laced IM session between two people planning to meet at a local café, and that's where 32-year-old Jeff (Patrick Wilson, The Phantom of the Opera) first spies Hayley (Ellen Page), her ripe pout glossed with chocolate after deep-throating a mouthful of cake. Hayley drags around medical textbooks and drops names like Jean Seberg, while Jeff flatters his doe-eyed companion by telling her she looks older than her 14 years (remember when that was a compliment?). Then the camera lingers on a poster of a missing girl, bluntly telegraphing that things will soon head south for one of our new friends.
Surprisingly, however, Jeff, though monumentally skeevy, isn't the aggressor here. The eager Hayley wrangles an invite back to Jeff's place, the walls of which are adorned with arty images of young models that Jeff has photographed, and after some dosed libations, the online predator wakes up hogtied to a chair. By the way, if you're concerned that I'm giving too much away, don't be. The real mystery is not what, but why (as well as why we want to watch).
Hard Candy would probably make a decent stage production, with the action relatively confined to a claustrophobic back-and-forth between Hayley and Jeff as she tries to coerce him into owning up to some sins. But without concrete evidence against Jeff, our sympathies shift from Hayley to her prisoner once she embarks on his transformation from stallion to gelding.
So does Hayley have reason to torture Jeff or is she just a crazy little girl? That information gets parceled out only when absolutely necessary, and director David Slade does an admittedly decent job of sustaining the tension. And despite being filmed almost entirely in interior settings, Hard Candy is gorgeously shot, with the film's palette changing alongside its mood (some of the scenes feature digital colorization). The script by playwright Brian Nelson follows the typical outline for a reckoning but hints at some creativity (Hayley disagrees with Jeff's assertion that his professional standing will suffer in the face of the law: "Didn't Roman Polanski just win an Oscar?"). And not many guys have the cojones to write an intricately prolonged castration scene.
Straddling the precarious line between knockout performance and ham on screen is Ellen Page as Hayley. Supposedly only 15 at the time of filming, the lithe teenager somehow channels a lifetime of bitterness against men into her character's clever cruelty without sacrificing any vulnerability. She's certainly a talent to watch, and she's got a role as Shadowcat in the upcoming X-Men: The Last Stand, in case you don't have the stomach to watch a vindictive Little Red Riding Hood exploitatively de-fang a Big Bad Wolf.
Maybe you're one of those people who schleps off to your job every day and spends most of those eight hours complaining about it. Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death, an intriguing documentary exploring some of the most thanklessly dangerous jobs in the world, should give anyone who doesn't make a living cutting goat throats some perspective.
Glawogger divides his surprisingly beautiful film into chapters, with each part depicting a particular locale and job. In "Heroes" he spends time with coal diggers toiling on their backs in the Ukraine. "Ghosts" follows Indonesian sulfur miners whose treacherous work on the side of a volcano is broken up by conversations discussing both the charms of the local prostitutes and Bon Jovi. And the "Brothers" dismantling massive ships in Pakistan admit that "You only get work here if you agree to anything."
"Lions" is shot in an outdoor abattoir in Nigeria, and the squeamish will want to cover their eyes for this section. But it's not just mindless slaughter: the employees take great pride in their work ("I believe this makes me special," says one goat washer), and while the ankle-deep viscera doesn't faze them, they do recognize that their livelihood was once a living thing.
Besides, not looking doesn't mean it's not happening. As Workingman's Death shows, much needs to be accomplished every day around the world, and there's always someone who will rise to the challenge.
Hard Candy (R), directed by David Slade, opens Friday, April 28, at the Little Theatres | Workingman's Death (NR), directed by Michael Glawogger, shows Friday, April 28, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.