The 'gimmick' (as the producer calls it) is the story of predator and prey, and the tables being turned. Jeff, a thirty-two year old paedophile played by Patrick Wilson, appears to have 'groomed' fourteen year old Hayley, played by Ellen Page, on the internet over a period of a few weeks and the film starts with their first real life meeting. But Hayley isn't as innocent as she appears, and very soon the tables are turned with predator Jeff becoming Hayley's prey.
In the wrong hands the 'gimmick' could have been a disaster and, to be honest, the basic premise isn't one I can see appealing to a lot of the movie-going public. But what's important here is that the 'gimmick' is just a basic starting point for a film that is beautifully written, superbly acted and has a visual style and quality that totally belies its 'two people in a house for 100 minutes' indie origins. It's hard to discuss the film without giving anything away, but suffice to say it's a powerful film that will have you alternately sympathising with one character and then the other as each new reveal becomes apparent. It reminds me very much of the excellent The 28th Day, but done in a much more cinematic fashion, and one that belies its small budget.
The critics don't seem to have taken to the film as enthusiastically as one might expect. I think this is down to the unease about the subject matter. The paedophile seems a nice, laid back guy, and isn't villainised the way one would expect, at least not for the bulk of the movie. This is the paedophile as 'the nice man next door', not as some sort of media-charicatured monster. The film has sado-mashochistic horror echoes of films like SAW or Hostel, and one feels part voyeur to what happens, which is not pleasant, but ironically unlike these other films there's no real on-screen violence. It's a psychological thriller, with much of the violence merely suggested, but in such a way the viewer is convinced they've seen it. If the film has a problem it's that it assumes too much intelligence on the viewer's part, and is too subtle in the way it handles some of the reveals. It's not overly clear that the central violent torture in the middle act hasn't actually happened the way it might appear (a single whispered line 'I'm all here' and a video tape reveal are the only clues that the Jeff character - and we as an audience - have been cleverly deceived). And there's a scene kicking off the final act that seems a little implausible - but heck, this is 'the movies' and brilliantly constructed traps are allowed to happen without upset, in a way they wouldn't in the real world.
Ellen Page, last seen as Kittie Pryde in X-Men III: The Last Stand, is frankly amazing as the 'innocent' 14 year old (the actress is 19 years old in real life) who turns into a paedophile's worst nightmare. This is oscar-worthy acting and one doesn't expect that from an actress so young. Patrick Wilson shows he's an incredibly versatile actor, with a performance very different from those he gave in The Phantom of the Opera or the Emmy-award winning Angels in America TV series. He plays a difficult role so believably and 'guy next door' at the start that you automatically find yourself taking his side before witnessing the destruction of the man within, feeling his pain and anguish every step of the way. The final twist (if it is a twist) is likely to leave you thinking long and hard about what you've seen, and man's responsibility for his actions. I doesn't give pat answers, but it does supply enough of a resolution for the viewer to feel satisified at the end of the film. All-in-all I thought it was a very powerful film!
Director David Slade proves an impressive first-time feature film director. Everything about the film is perfectly crafted, from the colour palette, the set design and use of pans, long lenses and close-ups, and the use of music (a mere 9 minutes total including the opening and closing titles). It's staggering to find the whole thing was completed in just three weeks of filming. I can't wait to see more of Slade's work.
If you think the film's awkward to sit through, try the 50 minute 'Making of' documentary! Director David Slade is not a 'natural' performer and his constant twitchiness, and nervousness in discussing his work doesn't make for easy viewing. That being said, it does give good insight to the whole film-making process and subsequent marketing, without resorting to the usual marketing fluff. It's more a documentary than a featurette, which is a good thing! It's not often that featurettes this good accompany a low-budget film that's this recent.
Thankfully the director comes across MUCH better on the main commentary track, which he shares with the writer Brian Nelson, and it's a refreshing change to have a commentary track that isn't just an aural copy of the material we've already heard in the featurette. A second commentary features the two main leads discussing their experiences. It's a fun listen, if a little light on real insight. Rounding out the package are some extended/deleted scenes and a ten minute featurette, 'Controversial Confection' with the producer/director/cast discussing the subject matter of the film and some of the extreme reactions to it.
I'd be very surprised if, at the end of the year, this film wasn't in my 'Top Three Films of 2006'. Rent it or buy it but whatever you do try and see it, unless you're one of those people who are very squeamish and prefer your films to be light and fluffy and answer all the questions you might have by the time it finishes.