Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Several of Paul Schrader's seventies scripts remade The Searchers in various genres, the most eloquent being Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza and the most successful Martin Scorsese's
Taxi Driver. His 1979 Hardcore makes the connection explicit. George C. Scott's odyssey through the underworld of the porn industry is a similar quest, one that scorches his God-fearing soul. The unpleasant movie holds back from a full examination of its subject but is still strong stuff for average audiences. Considering the temper of the times, it's probably more controversial now than when it came out; too bad the daringly direct picture completely drops the ball at its conclusion.
Single father Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), Michigan businessman and member of a strict Calvinist church, is shocked when his daughter Kristin (Ilah Davis) disappears while on a church trip out west to the Los Angeles area. When the police won't help, he hires private detective Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) but to his horror finds only that Kristin has shown up in a B&W porn loop film. Steeled for the worst, Jake leaves his community to search for Kristen himself through the Sodom of the California porn industry.
Hardcore is probably far too schematic for its own good. Dutch Reformed Calvinist Jake must descend into a veritable hell to recover his lost, or stolen daughter. The streets of L.A., San Diego and San Francisco seem to be populated exclusively by ugly adult bookstores, sex nightclubs and massage parlors that transparently front for cheap brothels. Along the way he interacts with Peter Boyle's sleazy private detective and finally realizes that if he's going to find his daughter, he'll have to do the job himself. That means total immersion in the hardcore lifestyle and the formation of a key relationship with Niki (Season Hubley), a savvy young hooker. Jake and Niki verbally spar over their wildly divergent personal philosophies. We want to hear this debate of lifestyles, but it does come off as somewhat contrived.
Schrader's film has a lot going for it. George C. Scott is convincingly resolute as a good but closed-off man who seems to use his business and his religion as a tool of isolation against the world. Jake's hermetic Grand Rapids society even treats relatives who leave the fold as dead. Yet it seems a heroic quest when Jake changes his style to wade deep into the sex underground, pretending to be an adult film producer to get a lead on his missing daughter.
The portrait given of the hardcore scene isn't exaggerated. There were massage parlors just like the ones shown on Western Avenue in the 1970s (roughly six blocks from my house in what's considered a good L.A. neighborhood), and far more adult bookstores than there are now. The hardcore films then were really shot on film, and Schrader does a good job capturing the venality of petty gangsters pretending to be artistically legitimate.
Schrader tells his story from the 'shocked' Calvinist point of view, but that probably doesn't make Hardcore any more palatable for conservative audiences. Jake would gladly welcome a Biblical flood, a Travis Bickle-ish 'real rain' to wash away the perverted filth he finds in the cities. Up to a certain point the show hangs together well, and seems directed toward some really frightening revelations.
Like The Searchers, Hardcore is about a clash between two completely incompatible species. His dividing line is moral instead of racial. The power in John Ford's film is that his subversive message (yep) went unnoticed by most of straight America in 1956. Ethan Edwards has become a racist sociopath, and his sickness is a mirror for the country. Hardcore uses the structure but draws few conclusions about its subject - Schrader certainly doesn't seem to be advocating a moral crackdown on all the vice he depicts.
(the rest of this review is probably all spoiler)
Hardcore may be too obsessed with its own ideas. For one thing, the lost daughter is never developed beyond a screenwriter's concept. 2 Kristin is seen at the beginning just for a second on the vacation bus, cheering with her friends. They've 'escaped' the constrictive world of their Calvinist parents, who control every second of their lives with religion-themed dogma. She then disappears with some boys, and although this supports the jaded police conclusion that she's a runaway, Jake still believes that she has been kidnapped by evildoers. We think we know enough about Jake to side with him unconditionally. He cares deeply for Kristin and is not an unreasonable man. The pain and horror is all experienced from Jake's point of view. Despite some tears, he holds up like a rock.
After the flawless handling of key traumatic scene where Jake has to watch his missing daughter in a hardcore sex film, the further development is somewhat fumbled. Unlike Ethan Edwards of The Searchers, Jake forms a relationship with a representative from the Dark Side, Niki. At first this is a revelation -- will he accept Niki as an equal, even if she'll never be one of the Calvinist 'elect'?
In the third act, Hardcore ups the stakes to a more standard revenge melodrama when it's suggested that Kristin may be in the clutches of some scary snuff film producers. We're introduced to an atrocious horror-world that we're assured lies below the 'normal' porn lifestyle, where female sex workers may be murdered as well as merely exploited. Jake penetrates this layer far too easily to zero in on a cardboard villain known as 'Ratan' who also seems to be Kristin's lover. We're suddenly in all-too familiar territory. Jake breaks a few heads and trashes an S&M parlor with the result that the evil underworld falls apart like a house of cards. Where are all the bouncer thugs who cleaned his clock so well before? 3
Jake finally runs into Kristin just in time for a conventional, unsatisfying 'action' finale. Peter Boyle's detective shoots a baddie we've barely seen in the back. Is that murder or what? Exactly how is that going to shake down? Then Jake has his reunion with Kristin, who initially rejects him. The scene is a disaster, as it's time for the curtain to ring down and Hardcore only now is confronting its core relationship. Now we discover that Jake was a cold and oppressive father, perhaps punishing Kristin for the sins of her mother. Jake earlier revealed to Niki that his wife isn't dead, an important clue that should have had weight, just like Jake's gentle bullying of the display designer at his furniture company. Jake cries in woe over his false pride and begs Kristin to come back. Like the child prostitute in Taxi Driver, Kristin claims she's now with people who love her, but deep down she wants to be back with daddy. It's a whole new film that starts and ends in about ninety seconds.
These frantic character revelations make us feel that we've been watching the wrong movie. Jake ditches Niki more or less just as the detective said he would (a shame, as their bond meant more to us than the runaway daughter) and then the detective gives the appropriately-named Jake a "forget it, it's Chinatown" kiss-off speech. This whole last scene takes place on one of those steeply pitched San Francisco streets. We expect any or all of the characters to slip and roll to the bottom of the hill at any moment. The movie certainly does.
Hardcore is as close to a 'Protestant horror film as one can get, and Jake's having to face such horrible things about his daughter packs a punch in the first third of the story. But the movie never settles on any but a cursory judgment against the porn world, which at its core is too much like any other money-making enterprise, selling flesh and titillation as a commercial product. The film endorses a popular fantasy about the sex industry being a front for obscenities beyond our imagining but goes conventional with its killing of just one bad guy at the end to make things 'nice' again. The 80s would see a deluge of Death Wish- inspired avengers going on 'justified' killing sprees against sinners and criminals of every stripe, but only Hardcore tries to properly set up the conflict.
I always thought the follow-up show would have Niki appear in Grand Rapids, cleaned up and straight, to try to fit into Jake's world while helping him with his emotional isolation from his daughter. Wait a minute, that sounds a lot like Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss.
George C. Scott is excellent in a tough role where he clearly had some misgivings about being in scenes that could be considered borderline hardcore material. Season Hubley is also terrific at making Niki more than a token prostitute. She has to literally let it all hang out, so to speak, in what could have been a cheaply exploitative role. Yet she doesn't lose an ounce of dignity. Peter Boyle is also fascinating but needed a bit more depth, as he comes off as an underwritten sleaze-sage with some good lines. Dick Sargent looks uncomfortable as Jake's hometown friend. The various porn bosses and pimps are acceptable until we get to the Ratan 'Mr. Big' character. Then Schrader doesn't know how to express EVIL except to play Latin music and make 'Evil' and 'Mexican' synonymous. It's pretty insulting.
Jonathan Demme's recurring actor Tracey Walter is a convincing adult bookstore clerk and a green-looking Ed Begley Jr. is an actor playing a soldier at an adult movie shoot.
Paul Schrader again shows himself a director determined to take 'controversial' subject material as a starting point for deeper probing. Perhaps Hardcore was just too strong for mainstream
Hollywood. It's a shame; much of it is daringly honest. 1
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Hardcore looks very good in a clean and enhanced widescreen transfer. Schrader goes for a less grainy vision of sleazy porn districts than did Martin Scorsese, and as such some of the locales look too glamorous, even with the garish colors. The audio is fine, including the quizzical Southern 'country music' main theme that would not seem to relate to Jake's
Michigan hometown. There are no extras. There are trailers for a couple of Columbia films but none for Hardcore.
Thanks to Ken Karpinski for his corrections.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 2, 2004
1. Hardcore was produced by the same people as 1941, while we were filming the Spielberg movie. Some of the producer's staff didn't understand the script and shuddered at the faux-porn material being shot for the film (William Dear may have done some of this). The final ending may be a partial re-write; it's similar to the script I saw, except that the script finishes on an abstract repeated dream of Jake's in which he sees Kristin as the victim of a bondage snuff killing. A note on the IMDB suggests a totally different original ending. Because of the studio's concern for a commercial product, I wouldn't be surprised if Hardcore were rewritten into utter confusion to find an acceptable ending.
2. Steven Soderbergh made this work better in his Limey. The missing daughter there is already dead, so the avenging father's dilemma stays within his own mind.
3. As I've mentioned in several reviews in the past, Schrader uses a motif from the story and the Roger Corman film of The Masque of the Red Death: the inner sanctum of evil is a chain of almost identical rooms, each painted a different color. Prospero's rooms communicate through doors, and Jake plows from one to another through cheap fiberboard walls. I can't remember if I got this info from Raymond Durgnat or from my perceptive editor friend Steven Nielson.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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