‘Hardcore’: Paul Schrader’s Descent into Hell

Paul Schrader depicts California’s sex underground in ‘Hardcore’

“A lot of strange things happen in this world. Things you don’t know about in Grand Rapids. Things you don’t want to know about. Doors that shouldn’t be opened.” ~ ‘Hardcore’

If your daughter went missing and a few months later you found out she was in a porn film, what would you do? And what if you were a deeply religious person and pornography represented the type of depravity you rejected your entire life? Would it help if you were a single father whose wife walked out years ago?

And so begins Hardcore (1979), another of Paul Schrader’s stylized depictions of American life. If Schrader’s directorial debut Blue Collar (1978) captured working-class union culture, and his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1975) spoke to urban alienation in New York City’s Red-Light District, Hardcore focuses on the suburban girls who are drawn to California’s sleazy sex industry. Nearly all of Schrader’s films feature people who live on the margins, and Hardcore remains one of his best.

Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) is a single Calvinist father who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis). He sends her off to a church-sponsored trip in Bellflower, California, but she soon disappears, and it’s only after he hires a private detective (Peter Boyle) he learns she’s starring in porn films.

He travels out to California to find her, and the more he searches, the further he falls into the seedy underground of pornography and prostitution. While in California, he enlists a sex worker Niki (Season Hubley) to help him, and the two form the type of father-daughter relationship he likely never had with his actual daughter. Their search culminates in his discovery of sadistic snuff films.

The premise of Hardcore is as old as storytelling itself, and Schrader cites John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as an inspiration. However, the setting is straight out of 1970s New Hollywood, which found American filmmakers grappling with changing social norms in interesting and innovative ways. I recently wrote about John Cassavettes, and Schrader is another iconoclast whose films resemble the decade’s standout work while simultaneously standing apart. There’s just something about Schrader’s work that can’t be classified easily, other than to say that no one else can make movies like him.

Hardcore deals with the rise of a new industry. You name the sexual fetish, there’s a service for it. Schrader grapples with an entire nation’s shift in morals, led by a young generation that blew up the pious moral code of their elders and put in its place a revolution that promoted free sexual expression. One generation’s liberation is another generation’s hell, and the more Jake sees, the less he understands.

Still, he keeps searching. Why? The film doesn’t say. Perhaps he loves Kristen. Perhaps his righteousness compels him to save her, not unlike Travis Bickle’s twisted perception of heroism in Taxi Driver. For Jake, what’s happening is simply not okay, and he can’t fathom that people would choose this world, just as Travis could never understand why a young girl like Iris (Jodie Foster) would sell her body on the streets. Someone else must have caused this, and they’ll do anything to make it right.

Jake is less of an anti-hero than Travis, but Kristen is less of a victim than Iris. Toward the end of the film, Jake learns that no one forced his daughter to star in the porn film. She’s drawn to it out of contempt for her father’s strict upbringing. She needed an escape, and she found one in California.

What fascinates me about Hardcore, and all films that don’t necessarily “hold up” anymore, is that they serve as time capsules, and are arguably the most authentic artifacts we have if we want to learn about how people used to behave. For as long as there was a camera, at least, human life was portrayed in a variety of different ways. Schrader’s documentation of 1970s society may be fiction, but the images he projects on screen come from a real place, and they can tell us a lot about who we were back then.

More than anything, Hardcore shows us the sheer danger of Jake’s odyssey into California’s sex underground. Sex workers today may be judged online, but their lives aren’t in physical danger the way they used to be (with global exceptions). Whether you want to call that progress, the point is that in the 1970s, girls like Kristen weren’t protected. The stakes for Jake are literally life and death. If he doesn’t find his daughter, it’s not that she might not come home for Christmas, it’s that she might be found dead in an alley somewhere.

This is made clear when Jake discovers the snuff film and is horrified to learn that such a thing could even exist. Niki knows this world, and knows that’s likely where Kristen is headed. Still, she’s hesitant to help because if Jake finds Kristen, he’ll leave Niki behind.

Thanks to the Internet and a whole host of technological advancements, it’s easier to determine that most snuff films are fake, as well as track down those who produce and distribute them. Back in the 1970s? Not a chance. That’s what was meant by the underground. You went down there at your own peril, and you were lucky if you made it back up in one piece. All of this was new, which is why Jake’s journey is so fraught with terror.

Yet, Kristen doesn’t know this and believes the people she’s surrounded by are protecting her. For the first time, she feels loved, heard and understood. It’s up to us to understand why someone like Kristen would stray so far from safety to leave the suburbs behind, and why someone like Jake would get so close to danger to bring her back. If we can understand this, then maybe we’ll be one step closer to understanding the chasm between the generations in the 1970s, and why for many that was a time of chaos in American life.

Schrader is on record saying that he was never satisfied with Hardcore. One regret he has is the ending, and if he could go back, he would not reunite Jake and Kristen at the end. That ending would certainly work, but the one we have now is still worthy.

In the final scene, Jake leaves Niki behind and heads back home to Grand Rapids with Kristen. His triumph, if you can call it that, is bittersweet. He returns with a daughter he now realizes he doesn’t know at all, and he leaves behind a girl whose only way out of that world was him, and now he can’t save her. The man who made the snuff film is dead, but how many more are out there, and how many more suburban girls are willing to follow them?

The ambiguity of the ending fits right in with New Hollywood, and it speaks to a society in flux with no clear path forward. It also speaks to the helplessness of the everyman against larger forces. Whether it’s the all-encompassing power of corporate America in The Parallax View (1974) or the corruption of the economic system in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), the deck is often stacked against the little guy, and in the 1970s, filmmakers were increasingly interested in the little guy.

Jake is no exception. For all the star presence Scott brings to the role, Jake is a man helplessly out of his depth, unable to fix things despite his desperate attempts. His daughter may be back in Grand Rapids, just as Iris is sent home to her parents after Travis guns down her pimps at the end of Taxi Driver, but the immoral society remains intact. A small victory to save one girl, sure, but it hardly matters when you’ve already lost the culture war.

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