Hardcore (1979) stars George C. Scott as Jake VanDorn a conservative, Calvinist, businessman from Grand Rapids, Michigan. When his teenage daughter goes missing while on a trip to California he hires a sleazy private detective (Peter Doyle) to find her. The detective turns up a short pornographic reel with the daughter in it, but when he is unable to locate her Jake flies to Los Angeles to do the job himself. Once there he journeys through the seedy underbelly of the city talking to strippers, prostitutes, and porno hustlers.
It covers similar territory as the Martin Scorsese-directed Taxi Driver (1976) which Schrader also wrote. Except in that film, Travis Bickle lived in the dark spaces and seemed to thrive there. Jake VanDorn is from the midwest. He is a moral man. A good churchgoer. He is unmoved by all the sex and unseemliness. He is propositioned several times throughout the movie but only offers back a scoff. As if sex doesn’t interest him. His disgust and anger come out only when dealing with his daughter – while watching her perform sex acts on camera or dealing with someone who put her in that position.
Schrader himself was from Grand Rapids and was raised as a Calvinist. He’s on record saying that the Jake VanDorn character was modeled after his father and it is hard not to see the daughter as a symbol for himself. He did leave Grand Rapids for Los Angeles after all to make a living making movies, something his father no doubt would have abhorred. Yet it is interesting to see how the film is from the father’s perspective. We rarely see the daughter at all, nor do we get her side of the story. Make of that what you will.
Jake wanders around the seedier sections of Los Angeles. He walks into porno shops asking the clerk if he’s seen his daughter. He wanders into makeshift brothels where one can wrestle nude with a pretty young woman and negotiate with her for anything else he wants. He pays these women but all he wants is answers. He doesn’t get very many. While pornography has become essentially legalized, this world is still full of secrets, it lives by a code and Jake is clearly not part of it.
He changes tactics. He puts a classified ad in a local newspaper stating that he is a porno producer looking for male studs. He’s hoping to find the young man who was in that porno clip with his daughter. He dons a cheap wig, a cheaper mustache, and clothes that make him look like a narc with no clue as to how to blend in.
He finds the guy but only plunges deeper into this world which includes underage prostitution and snuff films. In parts, it reminded me of several Brian DePalma films. Movies like Dressed to Kill and Body Double also delve into these unseemly sides of a city, but DePalma fetishized them whereas here Schrader looks at them with a detachment. Jake digs deep into this world that he only ever feared existed but he is not part of it. He is a watcher.
George C. Scott is a fascinating choice for Jake. He’s such a square. I mean I don’t know what the actor was like in real life, but his characters are often very straight-laced, or at least unsentimental. While diving into the underside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, he walks through it as if a robot, almost emotionless. He does break down a few times, but each time it is only due to his feelings for his daughter. He meets a young hustler who says she started hooking up when she was very young. Jake is happy to take care of her while she’s helping him find his daughter, but unlike Travis Bickle, he never seems all that bothered that she’s been abused her entire life. It is almost like this is a completely different world to him, to his world back in Grand Rapids, and he’d just assume it doesn’t exist once he gets his daughter out of it.
Schrader is a director whose work I’ve almost always enjoyed. This was the second film he ever directed and the sixth film that he had written. Hardcore isn’t his best work, but it is an interesting film, and it makes for a very interesting companion piece to Taxi Driver.