Writer-director Paul Schrader is both insider and outsider. His screenplays for Martin Scorsese include the masterpieces Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, while as director he encapsulated the decedent aesthetic of the 1980s with American Gigolo, simultaneously carving out a lucrative career as a studio script doctor. Although considered to be one of the ‘movie brats’ of the 1970s, Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing entailed that he did not actually see a film until the age of eighteen, while such later films as Affliction and The Walker have been financed outside the Hollywood system.
Schrader’s dual-profile as both sought-after professional and maverick on the margins is no better represented than by his film Hardcore, a gripping thriller that takes its narrative template from John Ford’s classic western The Searchers, yet thematically channels Schrader’s rigid Calvinist background, referencing his status as a mid-West ‘transplant’ through its neon-soaked vision of Los Angeles.
Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) is a devout Calvinist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is a respected businessman and single father to his teenage daughter, Kirsten (Ilah Davis). When his daughter disappears while on a church trip to California, and the police department fail to establish any leads, Jake hires Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), a seedy private investigator with experience of runaway cases. After several months, the closest that Mast has come to locating Kristen is to identify her appearance in the pornographic film Slave of Love, prompting Jake to travel to Los Angeles to launch his own investigation.
Immersing himself in the world of pornography, Jake poses as a producer in order to gain access to key industry players in the hope of finding his daughter and taking her home. Both desperate and determined, he gradually unravels, resorting to sudden bursts of violence and a rare display of emotion – breaking down while watching the ‘skin flick’ that features his daughter – turns a standard exposition scene into a powerful crisis of faith.
The lynchpin of Hardcore is Scott’s masterful performance as a staunch fundamentalist who must dispense with his conservative demeanour in order to make crucial contacts within the Los Angeles underworld. ‘All the kids who couldn’t get along here, they go out to California and make television. I didn’t like them when they were here and I don’t like them out there’, Jake says, showing his dislike of the entertainment sector in general.
While narrative trajectory requires Schrader to cast the porn industry as a modern-day Dante’s inferno, he also comments on its relation to the Hollywood mainstream with two scenes that involve the shooting of an adult movie being directed (probably pseudonymously) by a UCLA student who insists on using a strobe light and talks about ‘setting your mind free’ when dealing with his ‘actors’.
Although much of Hardcore contrasts the religious values of the Midwest with the sexual depravity of the Los Angeles underbelly, Schrader also notes that the two worlds have a crucial similarity in that they make complete sense to those who inhabit them, but are incomprehensible to those looking in.