There are some deeply flawed movies whose intentions I admire so much that I view the pictures more favorably than I probably should. Paul Schrader’s sophomore directorial effort, Hardcore, is one such film. A tough exploration of horrific subject matter that Schrader approaches with intellectual rigor and moral complexity, Hardcore is frequently sublime. However, Schrader writes himself into several corners, and the second half of the picture meanders on the way toward an unsatisfying final scene. Yet even in its murkiest stretches, the film has instants of tremendous power—so, for instance, the finale is disturbing and exciting until the movie falls apart its final frames. Plus, the overall story is enough to turn even the strongest stomach. After his teenaged daughter disappears from a church trip to California, a Midwestern father hires a private detective, who discovers the young woman has become an actress in grimy underground porno films; once the detective’s efforts flounder, the father goes undercover in the porno world, posing as a producer, in order to find someone who knows his daughter’s whereabouts.
Schrader pulled many elements of the story from his own life, making the picture feel deeply personal. Like Schrader, the family at the center of the movie is from the Calvinist community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a milieu defined by hard work, stringent religious practice, and the repression of primal urges. Schrader’s protagonist, Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), runs a successful manufacturing business, so he has the resources to mount an intensive search. Jake is presented as a walking embodiment of rectitude, his properness manifesting in everything from crisp diction to natty clothing. The contrast between Jake and scumbag PI Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) is bracing, but that’s only the start of Jake’s trip down the rabbit hole. Eventually, this devout man finds himself wearing gold chains, a tie-dyed T-shirt, and a wig while “auditioning” male porn actors who insist on showing him their equipment.
The most impressive aspect of Hardcore is Schrader’s depiction of Jake’s skin-trade education; in the course of learning what he needs to pursue his investigation, Jake encounters every ugly thing about humanity from which his religion previously shielded him. Thanks to Scott’s precisely modulated performance, it’s sickening to watch this virtuous man slip into a quagmire of exploitation. Considerably less effective is the relationship Schrader creates between Jake and Niki (Season Hubley), a prostitute who serves as his guide through the porn world. The pointed exchanges these characters have about relative morality slow the movie down—even though, on a thematic level, these scenes represent the core of Schrader’s narrative. Working with cinematographer Michael Chapman, a master at creating eerily atmospheric lighting, and composer Jack Nitzsche, whose powerful score features everything from the ethereal sound of the saw to the thumping grooves of seedy funk, Schrader creates vivid worlds with every frame of Hardcore. Even at this early stage of his directorial career, one could see the tendency of the director to reach beyond his grasp, but it’s hard to criticize an artist for aspiring to greatness.