Some suspense films tease us with hints of the darkest human potential—a sense of ethical free fall well beyond the bounds of Holmesian skulduggery or even Psycho’s murder in the shower. Others just jerk us around. That category, unfortunately, is the one to which Hard Candy belongs. What a shame: For its first hour or so, you could be forgiven for thinking this candy was a lure to something more nourishing.
From its lingering close-ups of 14-year-old Hayley (Page), a suburban L.A. high-schooler who blind-meets 30-ish IM-er Jeff (Wilson) in a caf, you can tell she’s up to something more than losing her virginity. Sure enough, after taking Hayley home against his better judgment, he wakes from his drugged drink to find himself strapped down, berated for being a pedophile and scheduled for some “preventative maintenance.” If you’re a guy, that was an ouch emanating from your throat.
Working from a similar premise to Ariel Dorfman’s junta-themed revenger, Death and the Maiden, screenwriter Brian Nelson introduces provocative elements to the mix during the excruciating buildup: incriminating photos in Jeff’s private safe (Hayley’s not a complete loon) and a resultant feminist twist on Gen Z nihilism. But how to proceed without giving away the outcome? In just a few reversals, Hard Candy manages to fully abandon its claims on the morality of punishment, deflating into a silly run-around-the-house rage romp with the flick of a scalpel. (Opens Fri; Angelika.)—Joshua Rothkopf