Saturday, September 6, 2008

#60: Hardcore


Directed by Paul Schrader
Written by Paul Schrader
Released February 9, 1979

Paul Schrader, the writer and director of Hardcore, is no stranger to the seedy side of life, having directed sexually charged movies like American Gigolo, Auto Focus, The Comfort of Strangers and Cat People, along with writing the script for Taxi Driver. Please don't confuse "sexually charged" with "sexy," as they are definitely not synonymous in the hands of Schrader, who tended to seek out the underlying menace beneath sexuality and desire.

Hardcore tells the tale of a Midwestern father (played by George C. Scott) wading through the cesspool of the Los Angeles porn underground to try and find and rescue his teenage daughter.

As Hardcore opens, we're presented with scenery from an idyllic, snow covered small town where people just can't seem to stop discussing Jesus and the Bible. It's the kind of town where a man turns off a Christmas special featuring a pack of dancing Santa Claus because he's just so offended by what Hollywood is doing to his sacred holiday.

This may initially seem to be an overreaction, until we learn that these people - namely Scott's Jake VanDorn and his daughter Kristen are strict Calvinists. VanDorn sends his daughter and her friend off to a Youth Calvinist Convention in California, where (after the mildest hint of a sexual conversation between Niki and her friend) this "sheep" abruptly strays from the "flock." I'd probably think I was being a little heavy handed if VanDorn himself weren't the head of a furniture manufacturing company, essentially making him the mass marketed version of a carpenter.

In the blink of an eye, VanDorn is on a plane to L.A. and hiring a sleazy private detective played by Peter Boyle. The next time VanDorn speaks with Boyle's Andy Mast (we are to assume that at least a few weeks have gone by), his private detective reveals what may be the most dreaded thing a father can see or hear: Kristen is now a porn actress. Of course, rather than reveal this information delicately or with a modicum of tact, Mast takes VanDorn to an adult theater and screens for him a clip of his daughter getting taken by two men.

George C. Scott's reaction defines the tonal change for the entire movie: we're not in Grand Rapids, Michigan anymore, kids. Forgive my play on words, but Hell hath no fury like a Calvinist father porned. VanDorn fires Mast off the case and takes matters into his own hands, and Hardcore becomes The Searchers meets Boogie Nights, with the Old West replaced by the new one. VanDorn is so in over his head that Schrader makes the brilliant choice of playing Neil Young's "Helpless" on the soundtrack as the lost father stares into a glass cabinet full of dildos.

It doesn't take long for VanDorn to find his feet as he adopts the persona of Jake DeFreese, a manufacturer from Detroit who wants to finance a feature porn film. The persona is almost just as much a cover as it is a way for VanDorn to cope with his own unease with becoming so deeply involved with an underworld filled with such cleverly named characters as Big Dick Blaque and Jism Jim.

Whether intentional or not, Schrader's film is a very dark and sometimes very amusing black comedy. If you need further proof, just examine the scene where VanDorn tries to explain Calvinism to the porn actress he has hired to help him find his daughter.

VanDorn: If God is omniscient, if he knows everything -- and he wouldn't be God if he didn't -- then he must have known even before the creation of the world, the names of those who would be saved.
Niki: Well, than it's all worked out. It's fixed.
VanDorn: More or less.
Niki: (Sighs) I thought I was fucked up.
VanDorn: I'll admit, it's a little confusing when you look at it from the outside. You have to try to look at it from inside.
Niki: Well, if you look at anything from the inside, it makes sense. I mean, you should hear perverts talk. A guy once had me convinced to let his German shepherd screw me.
VanDorn: It's not quite the same thing.

Of course, the comedy aspect is pretty much gone by the time VanDorn has dug deep enough to find the whereabouts of his daugther. Unfortunately, Schrader doesn't go as dark as he could have, and the movie is wrapped up almost too easily. Schrader throws in just a taste of a Chinatown ending with its last few lines of dialogue, but for a movie that spent so much time getting dirty, Hardcore ends with an all too tidy washing of the hands.

For more on Hardcore:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD.

George C. Scott loses it:

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