Psychological thrillers should creep your shit out. They should be more intense than you'd like. They should be cleverer than you are. And they should go places you'd prefer they wouldn't. Like horror films, the best psychological thrillers function as morality tales, and like the best dramas, they work best when the setup is both believable and unusual—90 percent familiar normalcy, 10 percent fascinating lunacy.
Hard Candy is creepy. And by creepy, I mean fucking creepy. It's more than a little bit clever, it's impressively intense, it's a believable-enough morality tale, and it definitely, definitely goes places you'll wish it didn't. Well, unless you're a pedophile.
The setup: 14-year-old Hayley (Ellen Page)—wearing, natch, a red hooded sweatshirt—meets with 32-year-old professional photographer/perv Jeff at a coffee shop. Having chatted over the internet—as "Lensman319" and "Thonggrrrrl14"—the two talk (Hayley nervously, Jeff paternally), at which point the ridiculously naive and sweet Hayley invites herself over to Jeff's home. If you're not thoroughly uncomfortable from the get-go (what's wrong with you?), you will be within a half hour—it's around that point that things take a twist, with the predator becoming the prey, the audience's loyalty to characters being disturbingly challenged, and, a bit later on, a scene that'll give anyone who owns a pair of testicles a year's worth of nightmares.
Hard Candy has its weaknesses—once it's past the button-pushing setup, characterizations and details become more and more scant—but its overwhelming strength is how director David Slade focuses on making the audience feel as awkward and nervous as possible. Ultimately, it's this single-minded directive that keeps Hard Candy from ever being great—despite solid scares, unrelenting tension, and good performances, there's simply not much depth here. But Hard Candy's nerve-racking plot and unsettling willingness to exploit topics that're usually and justifiably verboten make up for all that. (Sure, Hard Candy's manipulative, but so are most psychological thrillers—and when Slade and screenwriter Brian Nelson start to play off of their film's calculating nature, Hard Candy's manipulation becomes just one more of the film's disconcerting layers.) At a time when most entries in the horror or thriller genre are safe, PG-13, and instantly forgettable, Hard Candy's daring, sick, sadistic charms make it a singularly visceral experience. But maybe more importantly, it'll just creep your shit out.