Three years after Paul Schrader wrote the Palme d’Or winning 1976 Martin Scorsese classic Taxi Driver, the Grand Rapids, Michigan based screenwriter revisited the scuzzy and seedy red light districts adorning Taxi Driver with his second official effort as a writer-director: the hard-hitting drama Hardcore. Obviously the blueprint for films like Joel Schumacher’s 8mm as well as foreshadowing Schrader’s own obsessions with the sex industry seen in American Gigolo, Auto Focus and The Canyons, the film plunges deep into the Los Angeles sex trade subculture as a kind of seedy alien landscape.
The story of a conservative family man named Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) from Grand Rapids who is desperately searching for his missing daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) after her mysterious disappearance on a church-sponsored retreat. After hiring a private investigator named Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), Jake discovers to his horror that Kristen appears to have been abducted and forced into pornography. With no help or leads from the LAPD, Jake dives headfirst into the LA sex trade scene in attempt to find and rescue his missing daughter, acquiring the help of a prostitute named Niki (Season Hubley) who may or may not know of his daughter’s whereabouts.
Shot by Scorsese’s longtime cinematographer Michael Chapman with a mournful glass harp score by Jack Nitzsche, at the center of Hardcore is the unlikely camaraderie shared between Jake and Niki on the hunt for his missing daughter. Originally written for Taxi Driver before being reshaped into it’s own creature, Hardcore’s greatest strength lies in the dialogue exchanged between the pair from two vastly different walks of life who find they’ve more common mutual needs than they initially realized. The revelations brought out in each other represent some of the finest bits of screenwriting Schrader has ever done, up there with the famous exchanges shared between Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.
Though famed Chicago based critic Roger Ebert may have been right about Hardcore’s dualistic regard for the sex trade, simultaneously abhorring and glamorizing it, the dramatic character arcs are so engrossing with a powerful and heartbreaking central performance by the great George C. Scott that you tend to forgive Schrader’s neutrality on the subject. At the heart of Schrader and Scott’s swan dive into the porn underworld is a touching human drama with fine performances by Scott and Hubley and for what it’s worth a love story evoking the fragile bonds between father and daughter. Not the first film to tackle the porn industry and certainly not the last, but it is far and away one of the most profoundly affecting you’ll ever see.
- Andrew Kotwicki