V is for Violated
Jeff: Does your mom know you cut men's balls off?

Hard Candy, like Diabolique and Deathtrap, is an intimate psychological horror film, which narrowly focuses on the main characters while still including dramatic twists and near vaudevillian theatrics. Unlike like the other two films, which feature betrayals by long term lovers, these two characters have only been chatting online with each other for three weeks, thus adding a modern twist to an old game.

The premise is simple: a 14 year old girl, Hayley, agrees to meet a 32 year old man, Jeff, in a public place. After a brief, but flirtatious meeting, Hayley agrees to accompany Jeff back to his house.

Jeff: So is this how you want to play?
Hayley: Playtime is over.

Like most films in this genre, Hard Candy banks on several well planted, but not easily spotted reversals. The most obvious reversal is clear-a fourteen year old girl is able to outsmart and overpower a full grown and fairly well educated man. The brilliance of this film, although it is not a particularly pleasant or enjoyable film to watch, is how much it challenges the viewer to examine his or her own beliefs about a variety of topics including gender roles, punishment, and voyeurism.

American parents are constantly being bombarded with articles and news items about how vulnerable their children are to Myspace and IM smart sex predators 1, rap lyrics, and violent video games not to mention plummeting literacy rates even for college students, ranting teachers and racist principles who torture students during lunch. 2What is often overlooked is how savvy American children can be. That children are cruel, often crueler than adults, is often aknowledged yet that children can also be merciless and manipulative using Myspace and Facebook technology, which most adults are barely aware of, in highly orchestrated ways to inflict pain on both classmates and adults is rarely discussed . 3 What prevents teens from entrapping and torturing their peers and superiors isn't usually innocence or fear, but rather apathy and lack of motivation.4

Hard Candy, however, forces the viewer to question these ideas about childhood and innocence. Jeff operates from the same premise of the viewer: Hayley appears to be a 14 year old girl, which means she is physically and emotionally vulnerable. The idea that she could be his equal in manipulation and desception is so ridiculous he doesn't even consider it a possibility. These ideas about gender and age are so ingrained that despite the mounting evidence indicating Hayley's malevolent abilities, Jeff refuses to believe that Hayley is capable of these acts.

In a cruel twist, however, Jeff, an alleged cyber predator, meets his match in the very person he seeks as his prey. Hayley, unlike Jeff, has done the homework that a good cyber predator should do-she knows about his neighbors, where he lives, how to find him, while giving away almost nothing about her own identity.

Hayley: It's just you don't look like the kind of guy who has to meet girls over the internet.

Jeff is an attractive and successful 32 year old man. Like Ted Bundy, he challenges our ideas about who will molest or kill a girl. Usually we imagine molesters and killers having grotesque physical appearances which advertise and reflect their inner monstrousness. Certainly Machiavellian villains such as Richard the III and even modern conceptions of villiany like Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter indicate we continue to believe that killers have a physical deformity, most likely a facial scar, that indicates his/her inner moral impairment. Yet Bundy was attractive and clearly capable of maintaining a "normal" relationship, his monstrousness not only disguised, but clearly a choice.

Hayley: Does my face lie?

Yet again Hayley, however, bests Jeff. She appears to be young and innocent-chocolate childishly smudged on her lower lip, cowing her shoulders forward in a protective slump, no make up on her freckled cheeks. Much like the femme fatales of film noirs, like Mary Astor in the Maltese Falcon, her sweet face misleads both Jeff and the audience, preventing them from assessing the danger ahead.

Hayley: Oh, it's Romeo and Juliet. It's a ninth grade book, but I figure I can finish it before the summer is over.

Hard Candy contains literary allusions, but the most overt don't help the film-Romeo and Juliet's doomed love might have more appropriately been replaced by Great Expectations (a cruel girl/multiple reversals) a popular 9th grade reading assignment. Hayley mentions reading Zadie Smith, which although popular and difficult might not have been as insightful as Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, or even Nabokov's Lolita.

Jeff has close ties to Humbert Humbert. In the introduction to Lolita, Humbert informs the reader about his doomed love affair with Annabell. Her death and the traumatic end of their love, according to Humbert, forces him to attempt to find his love re-incarnated in other pre-pubescent girls. Her death, causes Humbert's sexual development to be frozen in time, and he attempts to free himself by trying to follow the affair to its finish with other girls. Jeff has also been traumatized by the early loss of love, although his love isn't dead, but rather simply rejects his affection. Whether Jeff continues to seek out young girls because he is attempting to resurrect the innocence and the rush of that first love or because he feels so emasculated by the model who left him that he feels the need to reassert his masculinity by victimizing young girls is left to the viewer. Perhaps because ultimately the motivation to pedophilia is irrelevant; only the act itself is of importance.

Jeff: Who are you?
Hayley: I'm every little girl you ever hurt, raped, killed.

Hayley, though, is no Lolita. Vengeance is definately in this season. Much like V for Vendetta Hayley is a amalgam of victims. When asked who she is, Hayley skirts the question by simply claiming to be the vengeance of his victims personified. Much like V, Hayley reveals no core identity, no backstory. She doesn't even reveal the motivation for her acts. Has she done this before? Was she victimized herself? Does she really know Donna Mauer, the missing girl she claims is her schoolmate? None of these questions are answered.

Hayley doesn't reveal information about herself because although Jeff is a match for Hayley physically, he can't compete with her psychological acumen. While she is able to extract information from him a number of ways (seduction, misdirection, torture), she is able to cloak herself, thanks to the internet, in almost complete invisiblity. When Jeff threatens to find her, she points out that he has no clue who she really is-he hasn't researched any of the identifying information she gave him and therefore even her name could be false.

Unfortunately , Hayley's abilities are too developed in respect to Jeff, almost making him a sympathetic victim. The lack of information about Hayley also inhibits audience identification with her. Thus the audience is left in a kind of limbo: sympathize with an alleged cyber predator possibly responsible for the murder of a young girl or align with the devious and sadistic girl who is attempting to avenge Donna Mauer's death. As one audience member remarked after the film, "I didn't know who to sympathize with?" But perhaps that is the point. Much like in Oleanna, the author might not have intended for the audience simply to pick sides, but to realize that in such complicated situations there are no sympathetic characters or simple solutions.

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. -Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil

Jeff: I just wanted to take pictures.

This film leaves the viewer with several questions. In chasing sexual predators, has Hayley become more monstrous than those she wishes to punish? Is Jeff really guilty? Is meeting with a 14 year old girl enough justification for torture? What actually happened to Donna Mauer? What is Hayley's motivation for her acts? Do photographs of underage models contribute to acting on pedophilic urges ?

Initially I thought of the film as provoking, but ultimately flawed because neither character is transformed. Later, I realized that the film itself functions as a trap for viewers in the same way that Hayley functions as a lure for Jeff. The premise, a young girl torturing a pedophile, is intriguing . Most likely, poential viewers expect a justified rush like the castration scene in the finale of Sin City. When real news articles appear about pedophiles and cyber predators, many readers and viewers respond with comments like "They should just cut their balls off" or "Death is too good for them."

The film seems to promise delivery of these wishes-a guilty person suffering a in most deserved fashion. Yet once in the theater, the trap is sprung. The viewer must face his own wishes and watch the torture unfold, although in a most unusual way. The viewer is forced to confront the real horror underlying his/her vengeance fantasies and evaluate the consequences of his/her desires as well as his/her own motivations in wishing to see such scenarios.

The question you have to ask yourself is before you watch this film is: are you hard enough to take the bait?


1 According to one parent with a 14 year old daughter, in one week he watched no less than 3 different news shows dedicated to cyber predators.
2 Fear mongering about children isn't particularly new. A NYC mother tried to get Tropic of Capricorn banned by sending her five year old child into a bookstore to buy it (information courtesy of the End of Obscenity by Charles Rembar).
3 Parents who solemnly believe that children are inherently less capable of violence, or even worse, planned violence carried out with the aide of an accomplice would do well to remember the case of Mary Bell.
4 Another horror film, this one from 1989, that also challenges the traditional adult-child power structure is Hell High.

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