By Michael Scasserra
“How do you wipe chocolate off a 14-year-old girl’s mouth?” That’s one of the tougher questions that all-American leading man Patrick Wilson had to struggle with when he took on the role of pedophile Jeff Kohlver in “Hard Candy,” an unnerving, completely riveting psychological thriller cast in the mold of “Death and the Maiden,” “Extremities” and “Oleanna.”
As a charming, 32-year-old fashion photographer and internet stalker, Wilson more than meets his match when he lures precocious, 14-year-old Hayley Stark (terrific newcomer Ellen Page) out of a chat room and into his candy-colored home where she proceeds to turn the tables in an increasingly grisly manner. If you winced when Kathy Bates hobbled James Caan in “Misery,” wait until you see what Page has got in store for Wilson.
Director David Slade’s cat-and-mouse game, in which Hayley becomes detective, jury, and potential executioner, is an intensely acted two-hander with one of the most disturbing revenge twists you’re likely to see all year. The crafty screenplay by playwright Brian Nelson was inspired by a real-life story about a group of Japanese school girls who lured older men into hotel rooms then beat them and took their money.
“This is not a pedophile movie,” maintains Wilson. “It’s about the power struggle between two protagonists or two antagonists, depending on how you look at it. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions and about where you draw the line between justice and vengeance.”
Was Wilson, now an expectant father himself, uncomfortable taking on such a controversial role particularly one that’s hitting screens at a time when internet child abuse permeates the media? “I was no more uncomfortable than I was playing a closeted, gay Mormon (in ‘Angels in America’), or running around in long hair with a sword (in ‘Phantom of the Opera’),” he explains. “I wouldn’t take a part if I felt that uncomfortable. He is who he is. These guys tend to be charismatic or they wouldn’t be successful. When you’re playing the good guy, you want to find the dirty parts and when you’re playing the bad guy, you want to find the vulnerability.”
Vulnerability is putting it mildly. In “Hard Candy”, Wilson spends most of his screen time in increasingly uncomfortable emotional and physical positions and often does his toughest acting while tied down to a makeshift operating table. An exhausting, 18Ã‚Â½-day shoot required both actors to dive into Nelson’s script with abandon and to do their own stunts.
In “Hard Candy”, the roles of predator and prey are in constant flux. Like “Crash,” “Hard Candy” forces viewers to take a point-of-view and draw their own moral lines. “No one would deny that his taking this girl home is wrong,” says Wilson, “but what happens from there is open for debate.”
“In this movie, the whole concept of good versus bad is askew,” says Page, a young Canadian (she was 17 when the movie was shot in 2004) who was cast over 300 contenders. “One moment you feel sympathy for a character and the next, you feel utter hatred.”
“You don’t usually come across a 14-year-old girl who’s written so well,” continues Page, who sought inspiration from Jodie Foster’s subtle portrayal of a teenage murderess in 1977’s “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.” “I think we’re really starved for passionate, intelligent young female roles in the media. Hayley has so many layers. She is an exceedingly intelligent, passionate young woman who sees something wrong in society and sees that nothing is being done about it.”
Page’s commanding performance in “Hard Candy” is likely to earn this rising star a lot of attention. She’s got the indie “Mouth to Mouth” opening in May, and later this year goes Hollywood as Shadowcat in “X-Men: The Last Stand.” But with “Hard Candy” hitting screens first, is she worried about being typecast as a man-killer on screen or off?
“I’m not concerned that having done this film will make me worry about the men I go out with,” she says. “I’m more concerned that it will make them worry about me.“
“”Hard Candy”” opens in New York and L.A. on April 14 (official site). Gentlemen, be prepared to squirm.