by Pauline Kael
Paul Schrader has powerful raw ideas for movies, but he attempts to function as a writer-director without ever developing his ideas or his characters. In his new film, Hardcore, the protagonist, Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), who is a Grand Rapids furniture manufacturer and a member of the Dutch Reformation Church, waves goodbye to his only child, Kristen (Ilah Davis), a quiet, dark, teen-age girl, who is going off to California with her Sunday-school classmates, in a chartered bus, to a Calvinist youth convention. A few days later, the father gets a phone call: during the group’s visit to Knott’s Berry Farm, Kristen disappeared. Jake goes to Los Angeles and, on the recommendation of the police, hires a private detective (Peter Boyle), and then he goes back home to wait. After several weeks, Boyle comes to see him, bringing an 8-mm. hard-core movie with Kristen in it. Jake leaves his secure fundamentalist environment and for the next several months searches through the porno-prostitution world for his daughter. This might be a great fiery subject if we could feel what the girl was running away from and if the father were drawn into experiences that scared him, sickened him. shook him up. In old movies that warned viewers about the vices lying in wait for their daughters (white slavery, prostitution, drugs), there was something to attract the audience: the thrill of sin. Even when the cautionary aspect of the films was just a hypocritical ploy, there was something at stake; the temptations of the Devil were given their due. In Taxi Driver (which Schrader wrote but which Martin Scorsese directed), the protagonist, Travis Bickle, had a fear and hatred of sex so feverishly sensual that we experienced his tensions, his explosiveness. But in Hardcore Jake feels no lust, so there’s no enticement—and no contest. The Dutch Reformation Church has won the battle for his soul before the film’s first frame.
Jake, a loner who sticks to his convictions, is Travis Bickle as a daddy, but a Travis Bickle who stayed in Grand Rapids and kept his sanity. Schrader, who has said that Jake is modelled on his father, doesn’t explore the possibility that it’s what Jake, in his firm religious morality, denies and excludes from his life that drives his daughter to sexual degradation. In this film, there’s nothing between fundamentalism and licentiousness—no forms of sexual expression or pleasure that aren’t degraded, and no way to have any sexual freedom without going to porno hell. The script was inspired by the 1956 John Ford film, The Searchers, in which John Wayne spends five years tracking down his niece, who has been abducted by Comanches. Like The Searchers, Hardcore is woodenly acted and methodical. The story is set up as a demonstration of the superiority of fundamentalist moral values over pornographic laxness. Jake is above sex. He hates porno the way John Wayne hates rustlers and Commies.
Schrader shot in actual porno bookshops and massage parlors and peep shows, yet he missed out on the atmosphere—there’s none of the pulsation of sleazy dives, no details strike our imaginations. Schrader doesn’t enter the world of porno; he stays on the outside, looking at it coldly, saying, “These people have nothing to do with me.” The girls arc displayed like pieces of meat in a butcher’s counter, under fluorescent glare. And since the film doesn’t regard these girls as human there’s no horror in their dehumanization—only frigid sensationalism. It has never been difficult to feel out the psychological mechanism of how pimps draw and hold runaway teen-agers: the girls are brutalized in the porno world, yet they also get the attention they’ve always wanted, and any attention can seem better than none. Hardcore treats them as if they weren’t worth attention. The only person who attempts to reveal something of her feelings is Niki (Season Hubley), a young girl who guides Jake in his search. Niki’s poorly written dialogue makes her seem realistically self-aware—she has no illusions to sustain her, no psychological defenses against the truth of her situation. She’s very straight, and Schrader leads us to expect that she will get through to Jake—warm him up, change him. make him human. At the end, when Niki is brushed aside and we’re told that she belongs where she is, we feel completely baffled and cheated. Jake will go on being the same self-contained moralist whose daughter ran away, but because, like the hero of The Searchers, he single-mindedly pursued Kristen, found her, and took her home, we’re supposed to see him as a man whose principles have triumphed.
Scott seems Midwestern, and without condescending to it; he endows Jake with a pained dignity and moments of depth, and at least one of his rampaging explosions—his picking up a table lamp and bashing a porno-film stud who has worked with his daughter—is quite terrifying. But Schrader creates effects, not characters; there’s nothing for Scott to hang on to and develop. Jake looms up in scenes like Frankenstein’s monster, and he’s constantly pounding people— smashing them and beating them up. He even slaps Niki (which is so ugly you feel yourself wincing). Jake’s rage provides the action in the film, yet it’s never treated as having any relation to his solitary way of life or to how he raised his daughter. There’s something a little batty about the way Jake strides through hell swinging his 544 fists, like a Calvinist John Wayne. This movie considers violent physical confrontation as the efficient way to fight the Devil. Jake is a can-do guy.
The tone of the film is cautious and maddeningly opaque. There’s no feeling of suspense, because the characters are all prejudged and they stay the same from scene to scene while Schrader holds the camera on them for an extra instant to make them look empty, or plays with photographing them from different angles. He seems to like the sinister possibilities of Peter Boyle’s big bald head and beady eyes and domineering physique. Boyle is photographed head-on so much he seems to be attempting to stare us down, and when he talks to Scott the camera cuts back and forth between the two, with so many overpowering closeups of Boyle that we assume that something overpowering is being signified. There may never have been another American director as lacking in spontaneity as Paul Schrader. The Europeans, such as Bresson and Dreyer, whose methods have been deliberate and studied (and whom he emulates) have achieved their effects through rigorous design. But Schrader doesn’t have that control and precision. There is no radiance to the color in Hardcore, and there’s no indication of a visual plan. Every now and then, there’s a shot with an exact kind of garish density—a travelling shot of the equipment in a sex shop, or a mirror image. But it just seems an effect applied to a scene—it isn’t integral. The film can’t resist such gaudy pulp flourishes as the white-suited Ratan (Marc Alaimo), who materializes in order to provide a last-minute shoot-’em-up ending. Ratan, we’re told in awed tones, deals in pain and produces “snuff” movies; the implication is that Kristen might be the next victim. (A few years ago, publicists pumped up business for an exploitation film by starting the rumor that its murder scenes involved actual murder—that it belonged to a decadent new genre, the snuff movie—and editorial writers leaped to the bait.)
It’s not merely that Schrader went to porno places and missed them—he went home to Grand Rapids and missed that, too. There are lovely shots of the downtown area and of Christmas snow scenes, but they’re edited in a random wray that dulls the effect, and we feel as alienated from the family life there as we do from the porno environment. It’s hard to distinguish between the furniture in Jake’s factory and the family members he sits down to dinner with. They don’t inquire after Kristen once she has vanished, and don’t show any anxiety about what might have happened to her. When Jake’s brother-in-law, Wes (Dick Sargent), follows him to Los Angeles to make sure he’s all right, he doesn’t even ask if Jake has had any word of Kristen. Sargent, who purses his mouth every time the camera is on him, plays the role as a TV wimp.
Who does matter to this director? He presents everyone in the same detached, affectionless way; even the sound is hollow. His scenes arc so inexpressive that it could be he simply doesn’t have enough interest in other people’s emotions to loosen up the performers out of them, and doesn’t have an instinctive sense of film rhythm. There’s the same determined ploddingness in this movie as in his 1978 Blue Collar, but it’s much worse here. The possibility also comes to mind that the porno world is Schrader’s metaphor for show business, and that, in some corner of his mind, he is the runaway who became a prostitute. He has sometimes said that he regards working in the movie business as prostitution, and Hardcore looks like a film made by somebody who finds no joy in moviemaking. (Paul Schrader may like the idea of prostituting himself more than he likes making movies.) Several veteran directors arc fond of calling themselves whores, but, of course, what they mean is that they gave the bosses what was wanted. They’re boasting of their cynical proficiency. For Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity: he doesn’t know how to turn a trick.
The New Yorker, February 19, 1979