Artistic Truth Bites Back: The Bitter Taste of Hard Candy

Over the holidays, I sat down with the family and, none of us aware of the horror and awkwardness we were about to experience, dove headlong into the terrifying virtuosity of Hard Candy. I wasn’t overly eager to subject myself to the film; according to what I’d been told, it was “about a pedophile.” But with a long weekend ahead of us, and a video selection that was less than comprehensive, we made do with what was available.

Imagine my surprise when the movie turned out to be brilliant. Brilliant, note—not enjoyable. The cinematography was fantastic and every one of us was retrospectively amazed that the whole thing was accomplished using a mere five actors. So yes, an incredible piece of work. The technical coups, however, were only icing on the cake. Its true distinction lay in its patent ability to discomfort the viewer in ways that I no longer thought possible, in a show-all, tell-all world.

Disclaimer: I can’t proceed without plunking down a massive spoiler. You’ve been duly warned; if you haven’t already seen the film, and you want to be surprised, stop reading, go out and watch it, and join us again later.

Now, then: as I mentioned above, the basic summary that I had received only covered a minute fraction of the overall narrative. Mainly, the film consists of a fourteen-year-old girl drugging and torturing a man who—and we don’t know this for sure until well near the end of the movie—enjoys picking up woefully underage females and, to use an outmoded euphemism, corrupting them, sometimes worse. The height of tension comes as we (and the depraved villain) realize that a safe, hygienic, and considerately anesthetic castration will soon take place, courtesy of the enterprising heroine’s prescient purchase of a medical reference and a book bag packed with all of the requisite tools to perform the operation in the comfort of one’s own home. The only thing we see while this procedure is ostensibly underway are shots of the respective players’ faces; the lack of visual confirmation of bloodletting and corporal restructuring still set off tangible winces, cringes, and waves of general disgust and terror through the audience. The males in my group were especially uneasy with each new development, screwing themselves up into contortions that would seem to indicate the receipt of a good, hard kick to the groin. Even after we learned that our bright young gal has only faked the procedure—she’s merely made him believe that she’s removed the visible representations of his manhood and sent them through the disposal—the sense of moral indignation, of shock and outrage, was still palpable among our little assembly. Why did we need to see that? What possible reason could anyone have for creating such a thing? That’s revolting.

The collective sense of having been abused was, I think, undeniably justified. But then—simultaneously, disturbingly—it also wasn’t. A curious sort of appreciation began to make its ugly appearance inside of me, accompanied by the hopefulness that my feelings about the film were “right,” that the writer and director and whoever else was in charge also had hoped to convey the message that was gradually taking shape inside my head. Stay with me.

Throughout most of my adult involvement in cinema and literature, I’ve regularly had to endure portrayals of rape, whether in print or on celluloid, while trying to remind myself that it’s not real, that it’s all a condemnation of human brutality. In discussions about these scenes, in class or informally, I’ve had to sit there and pretend to be objective, try to get through the ordeal and successfully hide the fact that those artistic encounters with rape have left indelible bruises on my psyche, punched empty spaces into my stomach that will never really fill themselves in again. I try to dismiss the foolishness of feeling personally small and hurt and beaten down by the action. And resignedly, I realize that there’s not much protest to make after others (usually men) have ended the conversation by walking away congratulating themselves that they’ve been able to float past all of this pain to an appreciation of the greater significance of the piece—having  defended the sacrality of Art and brought me to a higher plane of awareness in the bargain.

I’m tired of having a man condescend to explain to me that art can’t ignore the violence in society, that these scenes portray reality and thereby refuse to talk down to us by hiding the evil of the world from us. I’ve had enough of hearing such episodes justified by an assertion that, in showing the cruel truth of life, the purgative powers of horror will bring us to some sort of realization and change us into better people because of it. That, according to the guys down the hall, for example, the mental scars that remain fifteen years after viewing A Clockwork Orange constitute a small and worthwhile sacrifice compared to the new, profound considerations of ethics to which the film supposedly exposed me.

Every time I hear such schlock, I’m reminded, in spite of all of our contemporary rhetoric of equality and worth, of the still-present, senseless ways that (mostly) men can demonstrate what they perceive to be superiority over (mostly) women. It’s not merely the act of rape itself, then—or the vicarious humiliation of a viewer faced with its reenactment—but the noble-sounding defense of its inclusion in art that seems so insulting. The justification believed, so smugly, to be representative of advanced rationality. The authority so convinced of his instruction on the proper way to feel about (portrayals of) something so unforgivable.

Admittedly, these proponents of Truth in Art might not change their tune, where Hard Candy is concerned; if so, I’ll at least congratulate them on their consistency. Based, though, on the reactions I saw in the guys around me, I would expect a different sort of argument to ensue, at least a pause or a momentary lapse of certainty. Because I’ve witnessed these same men sit through more “traditional” rape scenes, visions of slaughter, war crimes, and so forth, and even while acknowledging, on some level, the dread of it all, not displaying any sort of physical discomfort, or expressing a post-viewing condemnation of the project’s creators as sick.

I’m guessing, in other words, that with this film, art has brought us as close as possible to allowing males to appreciate the emotional reaction that I (and many other women) have when watching a rape scene. Not nearer, note, to understanding the actual crime, or to acknowledging that humans are capable of heinous cruelty, or that life is intricately unjust. Rather, the movie might just give guys a taste of the chilling sensation that what you’re witnessing is somehow directed at you, almost a warning that you, too, could have your soul and dignity hatefully, mercilessly, and often casually shattered in front of your face. A reminder to watch out: don’t become too secure in your foolish conviction that you are a unique and valuable individual.

Why does this movie get those messages across so successfully? Among a multitude of other reasons, it openly addresses, without shying away from any of the “truths” that proponents of truthful art so admire, the fact that so much of being able to prove that one is a respectable man seems tied up in the presence or absence of a functioning organ. That someone might care so little for you that that person wants to go beyond hurting you physically, taking, too, that thing that, at bottom, you believe is yours alone. I saw those men in my little group begin to understand what it feels like to see someone so successfully go after another’s soul with a self-congratulatory smile. And then to get the impression that those around you would dismiss you as weak and hysterical were you to admit your painful feelings of empathy and fear, were you to do anything other than walk away from the screen and grab a beer and move on to the next activity. Well, I thought, they might finally know what it feels like.

But hold on, now; I’m not trying to “get back” at anyone; I’m not gloating over a victory in the ridiculous battle of the sexes. The scene I’ve described, and most of the movie, in fact, was almost too excruciating to watch. There was nothing enjoyable about seeing someone tortured, despicable person though he was; I experienced no triumphant feeling of “justice” (if we must call it that) having been served. There was no glee in wondering what this act of vengeance was doing to the person perpetrating it, or what sorts of hurt and sense of futility had led her to undertake such an extreme course of action. It was more than unnerving to think that a whole team of creative professionals came together with the intention of turning a disturbing idea into a visible reality. This film is not, in other words, what I would call “entertainment” in any sense of the term.

I feel that I should note, too, that this picture was not the product of angry, vindictive females; writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade are, as their names suggest, men. And watching the DVD commentary, it’s quite obvious that their purposes in making this movie weren’t aligned with the ones the ones that I’m taking out of my experience with it.

All of its motivations aside, though, Hard Candy is an obviously powerful film. And, sadly enough, in spite of all of my disparagement of “truth in art for truth’s sake,” I think it had to be as gruesome as it was in order to wake “us,” male or female, out of the desensitized ways in which it seems that we accept violence in this culture—at least violence against women, or any sorts of brutality committed between members of the same sex. (Think of the especially prurient pleasure taken in “chick fights.”) I don’t know of any more fruitful course of action in terms, for example, of getting men to see just what the idea of rape does to at least this woman. Other than this incident, the closest I’ve come to that outcome has been a sort of paternalistic sheepishness on the part of nice, guilty-feeling men who can’t imagine (and why should they be able to?) how it affects me.

What am I really trying to say, then? My plea is not for a balancing of the scales, so that brutality is acceptable as long we achieve parity in the number of victims of each gender, each side keeping up in a continual raising of graphic stakes. Neither am I demanding a wide-ranging ban on the depiction of violence, in film or elsewhere. But might we consider—just for a second—whether letting us in on the intricacies of a sexual assault is really worth it? Whether the continuing portrayals of such an act—and the justifications made about them—might be (maybe unconscious) attempts to hold onto a place on some remaining hierarchy? Or whether they only present us with “inevitabilities”—for whose elimination, in our newfound artistic maturity, we might as well not struggle?   Why resist truth, after all?

How about we get a little more creative than merely reporting on “reality?” Why not, in other words, ditch the rape scenes and scrap the shoot-em-ups? Idealistic? Sure. Willfully naïve? Maybe so. Likely? Not in this universe, I’ll admit. I’m not asking for a revoltingly aseptic cinematic universe worthy of Patty Duke and the Beave. But I will ask that writers or directors consider, next time they feel like using rape to make a point, that they think not only about what kind of world they’re reporting on—but what sort of reality—emotional, spiritual, even physical—they’re helping to create.

Creative Commons License The illustration is based on the photo by Made Underground. Credit: Made Underground

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