Proof yet again that nothing good comes out of Sundance anymore: David Slade's monumentally unpleasant Hard Candy.

I saw the poster first in January. "Holy shit!" I thought, "that's one hell of an image! I have no idea what the film is about, but the Little Red Riding Hood imagery? Brilliant!" Well, the little red hoodie comes back in the film, and there's a big bad wolf, but they're used very ironically, shall we say.

The film opens big. Jeff (Patrick Wilson) is photographer, age 32. He meets 14 year-old Hayley (Ellen Page) in a coffee shop, after they've been chatting online for a few weeks. He acts slightly creepy. She acts not-completely-innocent. They go back to his place (at whose suggestion, we are not completely sure); he shows her his work (mostly young, clothed girls); he offers her water and she takes vodka. He realizes he's been drugged.

For the first twenty minutes, this is a masterpiece of suspense. Intuitively, we know that thirtysomething guy + teenaged girl = creeeeepy, and the film trades off of that well. For all this time, I was watching with the proverbial fingers in front of my eyes, wondering when this slightly daffy young kid was going to realize that something was "off" with this situation, and bail. The drugging, when it came, was a relief, and if this had been a short film, ending here, I think I'd run out of words to praise it.

Then Jeff wakes up, and the film devolves into the worst kind of torture-porn, an idiotic revenge fantasy without any sort of audience identification or catharsis. See, Hayley has decided that Jeff is responsible for the death of Donna, a teenage girl with no evident connection to Hayley. And to punish him for this crime, Hayley has bound him to a chair, and is prepared to castrate him. But not before scouring his apartment to find the evidence of his sins, and leaving them in a tableau for the police. Along the way, she tortures him psychologically. It's the most disgusting film I've ever seen without a drop of blood.

The movie's first misstep, from which it never comes close to recovering, is to remain ambiguous on Jeff's guilt. Not just about Donna's murder; besides the "ick" factor, there's no apparent reason for more than an hour to believe he's even a pedophile. He has no erotic imagery in his apartment ("Don't all guys who live alone keep porn?" Hayley snarks. The answer is "no."), and even as her taunting grows more and more cruel, he maintains that he's never slept with, nor touched, an underage girl. Eventually, the movie tips its hand and starts ladling on the proof, but it's way too late for that.

Psychological torture is a tricky thing to depict, you see. The audience doesn't want to identify with a torturer, and so we must identify with the victim, who at this point is a man of poor judgment and no apparent crimes - it's possible, if not easy, to assume that Jeff is an innocent at this point. When she finally produces evidence against him, we are completely past the point of finding her righteous or sympathetic and so the film leaves us with a choice between two protagonists: a pedophile or a psycopath. Gee, thanks.

And no mistake, Hayley is a psychopath. The difference between a good revenge story and a bad one is that a good one either shows how the act of vengeance has destroyed the avenger, or shows that they know their actions to be ultimately immoral (the last good revenge movie I've seen, Kill Bill, has it both ways: the Bride admits to the joy she felt in slaughtering people, and then she ends the movie curled up on a bathroom floor, sobbing her eyes out for what she's done). Hayley is not remotely sorry for what she does, and she laughs at Jeff for suggesting it. And I get the horrible feeling that I'm meant to root for her. I'm not a pedophile apologist, but that doesn't mean I'm happy to see them have their balls cut off by a teenager.

And it's not even a revenge movie: Hayley has no reason to know who Jeff is, and no apparent reason to know who Donna is, and so all we've got left to explain her actions is the notion that she represents all molested young girls, and to that I have only one stone-solid rule: if a character has to verbalize the idea that she represents a group or class, she doesn't. Having a character interpret the movie's themes in dialogue is a surefire clue that the interpretation is coming out of the writer's ass. Anyway, I feel that the point of this whole miserable exercise has something to do with women's empowerment, but I don't see it, and I'd be a lot more likely to look for it if the director and writer (Brian Nelson) weren't both men.

So for 90 minutes, we get to watch two horrible people, one torturing the other. Hurrah. Sounds like a great date night.

I could forgive a little bit of this if the movie had the "style" that the film's defenders rave about. It does not. The film is grainy in that "ooh, I'm an indie movie!" way that hasn't been fresh for a decade, and I really can't think of a single shot that looked any better than it had to. But the editing - my God in Heaven, the editing! More times than I could count, there was this horrible, horrible motif of dollying around something (usually the bound Jeff), and when the camera goes behind a wall or other object, wiping to color in the opposite direction of the camera movement and then wiping back to show the camera dollying in the opposite direction of the original movement. It's showy and stupid and the sign of an editor who was clearly not doing his job (i.e. telling the director to fuck off) correctly.

I've never seen I Spit on Your Grave, and I'm unlikely to see I Spit on Your Grave, but I couldn't help thinking about it. In that film, a woman seeks out the men who raped her to kill them in violent ways. I'm told it's cathartic, if in a very shallow way. Hard Candy is about a teenager who does unspeakably despicable things, and is lucky enough to do them to a pedophile so that we can't condemn her. That's not cathartic, unless the audience wants to kill pedophiles. That's just nasty.