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'Candy' shows the lows of getting high

"Candy," Neil Armfield's searing junkie movie, is told in a serenely observational fashion -- the handheld camerawork is as crazy as things get -- which is good news, because somebody involved with this picture has to stay clean.

Based on a novel by the Australian writer Luke Davies, the film plunks us down with Dan (Heath Ledger) and his girlfriend, Candy (Abbie Cornish). He's a poet. She's a painter. It's the darnedest thing, though: Neither can really seem to get much art made. The movie hasn't been on 10 minutes, and Candy has nearly overdosed on heroin.

That's merely the start of a slow downward spiral. These two are a lik able pair, but the drug turns them desperate, for the cash to buy smack, and for each other. They turn to everyone for money -- her parents; and Dan's friend Casper (Geoffrey Rush), a college chemistry professor who also gives them drugs. They hawk a washing machine, a ring that belonged to Candy's grandmother, and soon Candy herself. The movie takes us through all this intimately and at a pace that leaves time to ask: Is this worth it? They can't survive a car wash without taking a hit, much less keep it together for their wedding day.

A decent junkie movie has to be careful not to glamorize the lows in pursuit of dramatizing the high. With some films, it's hard to tell which is which. "Candy," like Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," thinks the high itself is pretty much all lows. Armfield, who wrote the script with Davies, isn't after the elaborately twitchy apocalypse of Aronofsky's movie.

We see Dan make an embarrassed comic attempt to pick men up at a public restroom, but we're spared the experience of Candy's turning tricks. Although showing it would have seemed redundant: the degradation is there on Cornish's face. That bright smile the actress brought to her performance as a cunning American abroad in "A Good Year" is gone. Instead, her lights are turned out for this more trenchant, convincing piece of acting.

She's as good as Ledger is, even if he brings more texture and tragic comedy to the part. An extended sequence in which Dan steals a wallet and schemes to empty its owner's bank account is a tour-de-force of sly despair. Greasy and stooped over, making a dubious phone call, he is at once charming, antic, funny, and vividly sad. He's all these things all the time in this movie, yet never yanks out the stops, even for Dan and Candy's terrible, useless attempt to kick the habit.

It's one thing for a movie to show us the perils of addiction. It's another for it to give us two people who can't seem to find any joy in it . They're in love with the drug, but it's a miserable affair, one told in three acts -- "Paradise," "Earth," and then "Hell." When the final title comes up, it's almost shocking: Wait, weren't we just there?

The filmmakers do include a glimmer of a silver lining, but it's the inexorableness of Dan and Candy's addiction that sustains the movie. Near the beginning, Casper warns these two: "When you can stop, you don't want to. When want to stop, you can't." Watching the stupefied looks Dan and Candy sport throughout this film, all you can say to that is: Ain't it the truth?

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