Possible minor spoilers follow
Though it's not the stuff of blockbusters, "Hard Candy" is cut from the same cloth as a film like "Jaws" in that both are the stuff of B-movies dressed up and strutting around with A-list direction, performance and psychological depth. There'd been dozens of "monster in the water" and "killer animal" movies before Spielberg's, but it was his Hitchcockian flourish and natural gift for evoking small town Americana that turned his near-apocryphal premise into a resonant smash.
Likewise, right down to it's sleaze-a-riffic title and it's blunt, eye catching poster of a young girl in a red hoodie standing on the "bait" switch of a gigantic bear-trap, "Hard Candy" is what used to be called an "exploitation film;" i.e. a low-budget film aiming to draw attention chiefly by "exploiting" a plot-connection to a current hot-button topic and the promise that the audience will derive a certain "guilty pleasure" entertainment from the way that it's presented: Things you're already worried about will be made to terrify you, people and concepts that you fear or dislike will be throttled for your pleasure, etc. Make no mistake about it, for all of it's arthouse street-cred (two-character interplay, mostly dialogue, etc.,) "Hard Candy" is precisely the film it's title and poster imply: A revenge-fantasy in which a 30 year old photographer who picks up (and maybe worse) underaged girls on the internet (Patrick Wilson) has the tables turned on him (and then some) by his 14 year-old would-be prey (Ellen Paige.)
Predatory, internet-saavy pedophiles are THE current effigy of the moment, other than terrorists, and this is definately where the "exploitation" angle comes in. Child-predators have been around since time immemorial, but rarely have they been as "popular" as bad guys as right now. The reason is plain: The already potent parental paranoia about sexual abuse has become irrevocably affixed to the more general parental paranoia about the Internet; animals, after all, roam the streets... but monsters hide in dark caves. Thusly, pedophiles have been "upgraded" from mere scum-of-the-Earth to outright Supervillians- the walking embodiment of everything moms and dads fear their children might be snatched up by in the mysterious otherworld of MySpace and AIM.
True to form, "Hard Candy's" first image is a closeup of a computer screen as the screen names of an older-man/younger-girl duo trade escalating flirtations, climaxing in an agreement to meet down at the local not-Starbucks. "Lensman319" and "ThongGrrrl" turn out to be smooth-talking 32 year-old Jeff Kohlver and pixie-ish, well-read 14 year-old Hayley Stark. Using a the promise of some rare bootleg MP3 (ooooh... there's that scaaaary Internet lingo again!) as a lure, Jeff soon has Hayley throwing back screwdrivers and trading icky double-entendres about photography at his out-of-the-way pad... until he suddenly keels over unconcious and wakes up tied to a chair and facing down a decidedly un-pixiefied Hayley who's mannerisms and poise now suggest a visualized inner-struggle between whether her favorite Sigourney Weaver role is "Aliens" or "Death & The Maiden."
Seems that Hayley fancies herself an avenging angel of preyed-upon girls everywhere, and in particular wants to extract from Jeff information on his possible involvement in the dissapearance of a same-aged friend of hers. Her methodology for extraction, involving a napsack full of makeshift tools and an ominously-thick medical textbook would, if anything, indicate that the above-mentioned struggle is clearly on the side of "Maiden." And so we have the bulk of the film set in motion: Hayley psychologically tortures Jeff, Jeff pleads for his life, and so on while Hayley "prepares" her victim's ultimate fate; a punishment she decisively refers to as "preventative maintanance."
Let's be realistic: There's no possible way for the film to conjure much in the way of sympathy for Jeff in this scenario; even if the ONLY thing he's guilty of is trying to seduce this one young girl (no prizes for guessing it ain't) that alone is more than enough reason for a majority of audiences to conclude that he's getting more-or-less what he deserves. It may as well be Osama bin Laden tied to that chair. The film plays as fair as it can in terms of characterization, meaning that just because Hayley is fighting on the side of right doesn't mean she can't also be a something of a sadist/sociopath in her own right.
But in the end, this is (and can really only be when you get right down to it) a get-that-bastard revenge fantasy; the ultimate boiling-down of the "small-framed female dynamo takes down the big mean male" mythos so potently-popular in the wake of "Kill Bill" and the like. Its exploitation right down to the bones, serving up an unapologetic play on our emotional gut response to the hottest of hot-button social issues and then offering us a refreshing mug of vigilante justice to wash it all down...
...And it works, partially because the premise IS a near-perfect mix of revulsion and catharsis, partially because music video vet David Slade turns out to be a natural with pace and limited-resource visual storytelling (the early scenes contrasting tight closeups on Paige and size-increasing medium shots of Wilson are textbook examples of how to build menace without aid of music or dialogue) but primarily because of a pair of commanding performances: Wilson does a fine turn as an evil man pathetically self-deluded to believe that he is otherwise, while Paige is quite simply a star. Hayley Stark is the sort of role that exists to turn unknowns into overnight sensations, and Paige runs a 50-yard touchdown with it.
As is the case with a plurality of 2-character "actor's films," there are some slight stumbles as the film heads into it's third act: Hayley begins to look just a bit too competent and master-planner-y to be true, plans and double-crosses begin to stack up just a bit too neatly, and things start heading toward a mano-a-mano (girl-o?) showdown that might just rub some as a little too action movie-esque for it's own good. More problematically are a pair of instances where Wilson's Jeff, in order to make sure we "get" a pair of plot points that would be near-impossible to visualize (or depict, in one case,) is forced to deliver some awkward-sounding "who is he talking to?" mini-soliloquies. None of this, I'd hasten to add, really takes away from the film's primary functionality as a high-gloss exploitation/revenge fantasy, though it is kind of the final nail in terms of the film's loftier arthouse pretensions.
It's smart, slick, more than a little bit sick and heavily infused with equal parts button-pushing gumption and girl-power vigilante catharthis. Highly reccomended.
FINAL RATING: 9/10