Saturday, April 1, 2017
Few films have influenced my own writing as much as Paul Schrader's 1979 thriller HARDCORE. It stars George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn, a Grand Rapids businessman and faithful Calvinist, who, as the story begins, sends his only daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis) off on a church youth trip to California. Van Dorn is a single father and he loves Kristen, but the film doesn't go out of its way to convince us of this fact. There are no big scenes between father and daughter in the first fifteen minutes of the film. This omission is important because of what happens next. Van Dorn gets a call from the the youth group in California telling him that Kristen has gone missing.
The rest of the film follows Jake in his attempt to find his daughter. He hires a sleazy detective named Mast (played by the 1970s' most important character actor, Peter Boyle), and within a few months the detective comes back with horrific news. He has found Kristen, on film in a cheap 16mm underground porn film. In perhaps the film's most famous scene, he leads Van Dorn to a porn theater and shows him the movie to make sure that the girl in the film is indeed his daughter. Van Dorn watches the film like he's being tortured, which, indeed, he is. In tears, he demands that detective shut off the projector.
When Mast fails to find Kristen after this initial revelation, Van Dorn plunges into the squalid underworld of sex and vice himself.
He haunts porn stores and brothels and massage parlors. He's berated by hookers and beat up by bouncers. The cops are of no use to him. Finally, he decides to pass himself off as a fledgling film producer. He meets a millionaire porn king (Leonard Gaines) and hangs out on the set of a porno. Eventually he finds a prostitute named Nikki (Season Hubley) who says she can lead him to his daughter.
The heart of the film is the relationship that develops between the middle-aged Calvinist from the Midwest and the LA sex worker. What's interesting about these scenes is that the film doesn't swerve into the kind of cliches that we might expect. The two don't fall in love or into a sexual relationship, nor does Van Dorn set out to save Nikki. She's along for this ride for the money, and he's using her to find his daughter. There's a kind of weary respect that grows between them as they accidentally fall into debates about religion, sex, and morality.
At one point, Nikki asks him, "How important do you think sex is?"
"Not very," he says.
"Well," she says, "then we're just alike. You think it's so unimportant that you don't even do it. And I think it's so unimportant that I don't care who I do it with."
HARDCORE is a spiritual brother to TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader also wrote, and both films owe something to the screenwriter's obsession with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS. All three films are about repressed men seeking to rescue young women locked in sexual slavery. Of the three films, HARDCORE is the one that is most interested in what the young woman has to say. Unlike the other two films, when HARDCORE reaches the end of its journey, the young woman in question gets to speak for herself. When Van Dorn finally smashes his way through the underworld and finds his daughter, she unleashes a torrent of abuse on him. In a way that the other two films never considered, HARDCORE at least ponders the possibility that the girl might not want to return to the world of decent people and mainstream society.
This is probably a good place to say that HARDCORE is a flawed film. Schrader is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, which is his greatest attribute, and this film could not have come from anyone else, but it's often clunky in its execution. Stalwarts like Boyle and Gaines are terrific, but a lot of the supporting performances are stiff and little awkward. Some scenes go on too long, making and remaking a point that we've already gotten -- even the famous scene in the porn theater, for instance, goes on to such an extent that you're wondering why the hell Van Dorn doesn't just get up and leave. Likewise, the violent ending is overdone, with Scott rolling over the denizens of the underworld like a bulldozer. Is there really no professional criminal in California who can stand up to this potbellied businessman from Michigan?
Yet for fans of the flawed-but-kind-of-brilliant, HARDCORE is a great film. As I said at the start, I think this movie influenced me more than most of the films I've seen. It is both overtly religious and wildly seedy. You can practically feel the filmmaker torn between these two worlds. The thing that people remember about HARDCORE, of course, is the descent into the world of sex-for-hire, but the scenes of a close knit religious community at the start of the film have a special kind of power for me. Schrader knows this world, comes from it himself, and his feel for it is deep. The scenes of Christmas dinner--with an elderly relative bemoaning the secularism of the television's holiday programming while a couple of guys debating at the kitchen table cite Bible verses at each other--as well as the brief scenes of the church youth group striking off for a Christian youth conference, all of this feels exactly right to me. It's different from what I grew up with among the baptists in Arkansas, but it is familiar in the truest sense of the word, in the sense that there's a family resemblance between strict Protestant churches.
Although Schrader wrote TAXI DRIVER, that film is filtered through Scorsese's tortured Catholicism and his obsession with sacrament and penance. HARDCORE, on the other hand, is Schrader through and through. It is about frosty Protestant repression surviving a deep dive into the steamy muck of a world without rules. In TAXI DRIVER, De Niro's Travis Bickle is a man tormented by his desire for sex, which he finds filthy and corrupt. Scott's Jake Van Dorn, on the other hand, is not tormented in this same way because he's not tempted in the same way. He's horrified by the flesh markets, and although he is weary and battered, he remains as resolute as a knight on a quest. Thus, in its weird mix of seriousness and salaciousness, HARDCORE is something truly special, a dirty movie about the triumph of repression.