Hardcore September 15, 2018
George C. Scott
1 Hr., 49 Mins.
As revealed in the director’s commentary featured on the film’s DVD, Schrader has come to think that the dialogue in Hardcore — which is, I think, one of its best attributes — is inconsistently good. He would have spliced out a handful of scenes, thus slimming down the running time. Season Hubley, the feature’s female lead, would have been recast.
To me, Schrader’s qualms only sound characteristic of the tactful, unendingly self-flagellating creative type entrapped by unnecessary self-doubt. Especially because Hardcore, aside from the messy, tacked-on, studio-mandated finale, is among the more spellbinding of the sleazy crime dramas which proliferated at the advent of the New Hollywood era.
It stars George C. Scott, ever-gruff, as Jake, a businessman who hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan. A single father to a teenager named Kristen (Ilah Davis), Jake provides ample financial support but little by way of emotional subsistence — buttressed by his Calvinist-adhering views that enforce a strict home life. Naturally, the relationship provokes a sort of need to rebel on his daughter’s part.
The film opens during Christmastime; we’re privy to theological debates and a snow-steeped landscape, establishing a sense of conservatism and oppression. When Kristen soon goes on a church-sponsored trip to Bellflower, California, only to never return, we wonder if her disappearance has the sinister undercurrent of a kidnapping, or if she, simply, wanted a break from the repressive environment in which she’s grown up.
Understandably, Jake fears the worst. He travels to California, and punctually hires a chrome-domed private investigator named Andy (Peter Boyle) to look for his daughter. Eventually, Andy happens upon an 8-millimeter stag film, in which Kristen is depicted having sex with two men. Horrific, but it makes Jake hopeful; maybe its origins can be traced. Andy shakes his head. Not a chance. “Nobody made it. Nobody sold it. Nobody sees it. It doesn't exist.”
Such a response doesn’t work for Jake. Unsure of Andy’s commitment, he decides to investigate for himself, stumbling through even the most hidden of sex subcultures. At one point, he even poses as a porn producer in a desperate attempt to map out just who might have an idea of Kristen’s whereabouts.
Soon essential to the odyssey is Niki (Season Hubley), a sex worker and porn star who fortuitously becomes Jake’s wingwoman and who will more outrightly challenge his value system than anything he’ll encounter during his seedy pilgrimage. She provides for a sympathetic face atop a lifestyle he’s for so long deemed irredeemable.
Hardcore is conceptually in line with a number of Schrader-penned films. Along with the likes of Taxi Driver, from 1976, and 1977’s Rolling Thunder, it is about a man who finds his morals and beliefs tested in the face of an oppositional sphere. This basic mold works well for the movie, in part, because the protagonist, and the environment he must power through, are on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Because Schrader’s writing and direction are so attentive toward the attitudes of both its unwitting hero and the subculture through which he must waft, and because Scott’s performance oscillates between fury, fear, and vulnerability, we can feel the effects this squalid crusade is having on our traditionalist lead.
Hardcore’s emotional faculty is best elucidated during and after Jake and Niki’s first meeting, in a parlor where she at first treats our hero like a potential client. After it's clarified that the woman, whom we learn has been in the sex industry since she was 15, possesses the all-important familiarity with this subculture that Jake and Andy do not have themselves, she is hired on as an unofficial sidekick.
Jake and Niki have a fascinating relationship. Though their respective core values patently differ, there is a mutual respect that allows them to be more comfortable with one another than they have perhaps been with anyone. Jake is the first man in a long time who doesn’t view Niki as a lay to be paid for; Niki is, quite possibly, the only person with whom Jake has felt able to candidly talk about his divorce. Theology, relationships, and general outlooks are discussed freely and openly; the conversations which arrive are authentic and surprisingly moving. The affinity also underscores the broader thematics and ideas of the movie, like piety, sex, and the pitfalls of capitalism's food chain-like structure.
If Schrader were able to go back in time and further edit down the movie, rewrite some of the dialogue, and recast Hubley, Hardcore would not have the same unusual, uncomfortable hold over us. Its length, I think, is just right. Its dialogue is acute; Hubley’s performance is, by turns, poised and naked (emotionally, I mean). The only shared misgiving is that much-derided ending: it is optimistic and trope-heavy, while the one Schrader originally envisioned was cynical and Chinatown (1974)-esque. The latter would have been more suitable, though I suppose in a movie so potent, the ultimate hint of pomp isn’t that bad a thing. A
hen looking at his second directorial effort, the 1979 street drama Hardcore, through the rearview mirror of his career, the filmmaker Paul Schrader is less than pleased. Along with Blue Collar, the Richard Pryor vehicle he oversaw in 1978, he considers it one of two movies he helmed before he actually “knew” how to direct. (That skill, presumptively, was something he would perfect during the production of 1980’s American Gigolo.)