If you feel like you need a shower after watching Paul Schrader’s 1979 crime drama Hardcore (newly reissued on Blu-ray, Kino Lorber, $17.42), then the movie has done its job. Skeevy even by Schrader standards, Hardcore germinated the same year as Scrader’s celebrated screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and it feels cut from the same sordid cloth — and imbued with the same catholic immersion into the illicit corners of our most libertine cities.
George C. Scott plays Jake Van Dorn, a business owner and embodiment of that now-endangered species: the middle-class Rust Belt professional. Divorced and raising a teenage daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis), Jake runs an industrious, wholesome, doggedly religious home — a sanctuary free of impure thoughts and contemptuous of popular entertainment, for what is television if not the handmaiden of a secular cultural rot?
When his daughter disappears while on a Youth Calvinist Convention in California, Jake flies to the Golden State, confronts a feckless L.A.P.D. wary of investing too much manpower on the nth runaway case, and invests in the services of a salty private detective, Andy Mast (a memorable Peter Boyle). When Mast discovers that Kristen has appeared in an 8mm porn film, Jake sets off to find her in a nocturnal odyssey through a bottomless underbelly of XXX theaters, bordellos, Turkish baths and places like “The Crypt — for the pleasure oriented.”
For a God-fearing Midwesterner such as Jake — and for many of the movie’s viewers — Hardcore can pass for an ethnographic documentary on a culture that’s as foreign as an Inuit community. (Today, it’s a time capsule of a pre-Cloroxed L.A.). As he drives an endless neon sprawl of sex for sale, he might as well be Travis Bickle navigating his checkered hearse through New York’s Hellscape of depravity. But while Bickle viewed the culture with a guilty allure, there’s never a moment when Scott’s Jake is tempted by the vice. He’s more like a Liam Neeson dad from the early 2000s, single-minded in his obsession, than he is one of Schrader’s stewer-philosophers; he’s far too busy trying to find answers to write in a journal.
The director finds much richness, and occasionally absurdist humor, in the milieu, as when a pair of topless dancers, inspired by the blockbuster of the time, spar onstage with light sabers. In a particularly deft touch, Neil Young’s “Helpless” plays over a scene in a sex shop, accurately describing Jake’s clueless drift over its array of dildos, which beckon under a glass counter like flavors of Baskin-Robbins.
More importantly, Schrader understands the mechanics of a porn-and-prostitution culture operating on the margins of legality, in which films change titles as often as they change hands, no one can (or will) identify anyone from a photograph, and everyone uses aliases. It’s a hall of mirrors stained with … we don’t want to know.
But while there’s one nasty moment in which Jake himself becomes an abuser of sorts, Hardcore actually exhibits compassion toward sex workers, presenting them as an exploited class. As he gets to know one helpful porn actress (Season Hubley), she manages to chip away at his armor of judgment. It’s all played straight and, ultimately, empathetically from Scott, whose performance has aged with a degree of grace critics rarely afforded it when the film was released. (He earned a “Worst Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” from the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards in 1979.)
For even casual Schrader fans, the disc is well worth your investment. Its colors are stunning — which is vital considering the tailored luridness of Michael Chapman’s cinematography, with its climactic sequence in garish hues of red, blue and green — and it offers two commentary tracks, one from Schrader and the other from three film historians, who offer perspectives from both inside and outside of the production.