Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Paul Schrader.
Starring: George C. Scott (Jake VanDorn), Peter Boyle (Andy Mast), Season Hubley (Niki), Dick Sargent (Wes DeJong), Leonard Gaines (Ramada), Dave Nichols (Kurt), Gary Graham (Tod), Larry Block (Detective Burrows), Marc Alaimo (Ratan), Leslie Ackerman (Felice), Charlotte McGinnis (Beatrice), Ilah Davis (Kristen Van Dorn), Paul Marin (Joe Van Dorn), Will Walker (Jism Jim).
John Ford’s The Searchers hangs heavily over quite a few of the films written or directed (or both) by Paul Schrader. Ford’s story, of an obsessive quest by John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards – a Civil War veteran, who no longer recognizes the world around him – to find his kidnapped niece is one that the “hero” of Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle - an increasingly alienated Vietnam war vet - can relate to – as he sets about saving a child prostitute (played by Jodie Foster). Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle are two of the most famous characters in American film – but Jake VanDorn, the “hero” of Hardcore is very much like them. He lives an ordered life in Grand Rapids Michigan – he is a member of the Christian reform church – as Schrader was growing up – and he is raising his daughter, Kristen (Illah Davis) by himself (we will eventually find out what happened to his wife – well, sort of). On a trip to California, Kristen goes missing – and obviously, Jake wants to find her. He hires a detective – Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), who is at least somewhat shady, but he does “find” Kristen – not in person, but on film. The film is a low rent porn film – and Kristen seems like a willing participant. Jake will travel back to California, and sink into the world of sex shops, porn films and prostitutes all in an attempt to save his daughter. Like Edwards and Bickle however, VanDorn never stops and asks himself a very basic question: Does the young woman he’s trying to save, want to be saved?
George C. Scott is at the center of the movie, and it really is one of his best performances. He plays VanDorn as a quiet man – one we do, at least initially, sympathize with. He runs his business, and basically lives a quiet ordered life. He doesn’t drink or smoke or swear – but he’s also not really trying to force his tightly held religious beliefs onto anyone, outside his family anyway. He is a quiet man, who keeps to himself – he doesn’t much understand the world outside his bubble – and he doesn’t much care about that either. It’s only when his daughter goes missing that he leaps into action to try and get her back. Throughout the film though, we do start to question a little bit his motives. He never shares any memories about Kristen – never talks about who she is as a person, or what she means to him. He is almost completely emotionally shut down. The poster has the tagline “Oh my god, that’s my daughter!” – but VanDorn never actually says that in the movie. When he is shown the movie with his daughter in it, he’s quiet – he covers his eyes and leaves. When he confronts Mast about the movie later, he doesn’t talk about his daughter as much as he talks about Mast – and how he must have enjoyed showing him that movie.
In California, VanDorn goes “undercover” to try and find his daughter – after it becomes clear to him that acting and dressing like himself will simply get everyone in this sleazy underworld think he’s a cop. He frequents sex shops and peep shows (apparently, Schrader insisted in shooting in the real business he portrays – something Scott says if he knew, he wouldn’t have made the movie – and this led to a rocky relationship between Schrader and Scott – although Scott’s unease in those places works for the movie, whether it was real or acted). He meets with porn producers, puts out a phony add looking for talent, and follows one lead after another, down one rabbit hole after another, each darker than the last. He finally teams up with Niki (Season Hubley), a young sex worker herself, who knows some people, who she thinks know Kristen. Their relationship is the best, deepest one in the movie. Niki is the only person who VanDorn opens up to at all – revealing his religious beliefs, and what really happened to his wife (kind of) – whereas Niki opens his eyes a little bit to the reality of what she does, and why. For a time, he becomes a surrogate father to her – although she correctly reads what the reality of the situation is going to be when it ends.
As many, including Roger Ebert, have pointed out – the end of the Hardcore is a little bit of a mess (spoiler alert). Schrader had always planned on VanDorn never finding Kristen – instead, he learns that she died in a car accident, and he slinks home a broken man. For whatever reason, he changed the end – but to make it fit in terms of plot, he needed to add in a previously unseen villain, as well as some violent action. The conversation that VanDorn and his daughter end up having is the most awkward and unconvincing in the film – it tries to assign a reason as to why she left, and a reason why she’ll come back with him. The Searchers and Taxi Driver both (smartly) avoided this problem – neither Natalie Wood or Jodie Foster have to say anything after being “rescued” – those films, instead, allow their parents to do the talking, even if it’s clear they don’t understand their children (as it is here as well). But it’s not quite fair to describe the ending of Hardcore as a forced happy ending either. The final shot of the movie makes it clear that despite everything he has previously said, VanDorn will be yet another man who abandons Niki – making him less principled than he thinks he is – and the fact that he’s going to go home with Kristen will make it much harder for him to return to his bubble – which he could have done had she died. Ethan and Travis get to live with their fantasies – VanDorn won’t have that luxury. (end spoilers).