Paul Schrader is one of my cinematic heroes and despite his numerous accolades I feel he’s one of the most underappreciated artists to work in film. He has a way of capturing the underbelly of society through his writing and visuals that very few can equal. When he and Martin Scorsese worked together on Taxi Driver that was such a perfect pairing, it’s Schrader’s best screenplay he’s ever produced, and I know this is a controversial take but I feel it’s also Scorsese’s best film. Hardcore would be the second film that Schrader would go on to direct, eventually he’d end up with 27 directing credits, but Hardcore for me is his standout film where he worked as both writer and director. This film isn’t for everyone and despite it being released in 1979 the subject matter remains provocative but for those willing to take a walk into some seedy areas this is film that will take you for a ride you won’t soon forget.
The film opens up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Schrader immerses us into the day to day life in this middle of America town and we meet Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott). Jake is a successful business man, he runs his own furniture company and is a devout Calvinist. Seeing the conservative values on display at the start of the film is important, and though we don’t see a lot of interaction between Jake and his daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis), these moments that we see Kristen with her family and with the church group show us that she at least seemed happy and well “innocent”. The decent for the VanDorn family comes when Kristen goes on trip with her church group to California and she goes missing. Was she kidnapped? Did she runaway? No one has an answer and this leads Jake to travel to California and he hires a private investigator, Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) to find out what he can about Kristen.
Things take a bit of a dark turn when Andy finds a porno flick that Kristen was in and he shows it to Jake. This will lead Jake onto a journey where he delves into the adult industry to find his daughter and “rescue” her. What makes this journey so profound is that Schrader takes us into these real locations and doesn’t shy away from what goes on in these places. It sounds a bit cliché but its made clear that Kristen isn’t the first girl to escape her small town existence and fall down the rabbit hole of the porn industry and Jake isn’t the first father to try and “save” his daughter from this life. Schrader isn’t making a porno instead he’s shining a light into these dark places society chooses to ignore where people make money and exploit men and women in the sex trade and just how easily they are discarded and forgotten once they’ve served their purpose.
What makes this film work is that Schrader isn’t trying to preach to the audience or condemn the porn industry but instead he’s just showing us what it is and giving us glimpses at the lives people have in this industry. We see those that are just trying to survive and make money to take care of their kids, there are the film students just looking for work, there are those that see the profits that can be made, but then there are the ones with the fetishes, some you can just write off as a pervert but then there are the others that are dangerous and are simply predators and unfortunately girls like Kristen can easily fall prey to these kinds of people. George C. Scott delivers a performance that is gut wrenching at times but you just can’t help but root for this guy, you don’t have to share his values but at the end of the day you want him to find his daughter. Even when Jake starts to do things that are in a morally grey area you can support this character because we know he’s willing to do whatever it takes to find his daughter. Then you have Andy, Peter Boyle and George C. Scott on screen together does deliver some great dramatic performances, Boyle is fantastic as the cynical and jaded investigator. There’s a scene in the third act between Andy and Niki (Season Hubley), a porn actress that stands out to me…Niki has been helping Jake find a guy that was last seen with his daughter and through the course of the film we seen a kinship develop between Niki and Jake. What Schrader does with this scene is we see Andy question Niki and her motives for wanting to help, he didn’t have to include this scene but he pays it off at the end of the film in such a way that it elevates this film and how an audience can perceive a happy or tragic ending depending on the characters perspective they choose to look at.
In 1999 Joel Schumacher made the film 8mm which was written by Andrew Kevin Walker who penned the film Seven. I bring this up because it is very much an updated and in some ways an even darker take on the same material. I feel if you like Hardcore then 8mm is worth checking out and vice versa. I’m a sucker for both films and while at first glance they are both cautionary tales for parents about what can happen to your children when they go off into the world and how the world can be cruel and eager to devour the innocent and vulnerable. At the same time these films hold up a mirror to the stigma attached to these lifestyles and how critical society can be of people working in these conditions when they could easily be victims or people that have just lost their way.
Hardcore isn’t a film that you have a few drinks and have a good time with but it’s a film with some incredible performances that takes you on a journey to areas of society you may not be familiar with from the safety of your living room. This film leaves a mark because hopefully it keeps you thinking after the film has ended and perhaps will make you want to hug your loved ones tighter when you see them. This is just a glimpse into the world of pornography and to imagine sex trafficking is so much worse. It’s not exactly pleasant subject matter being portrayed but it does have value in understanding what is going on rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.