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USA 1979
Directed by
Paul Schrader
108 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


Writer-director Paul Schrader goes straight to the heart of his abiding interest in sex, violence and religion in this story of a Calvinist Michigan businessman, Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott), whose teenage daughter goes missing on a church trip to California. When police prove unhelpful, Van Dorn hires a private investigator, Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), to look for her. Mast turns up a pornographic film that she has appeared in and Van Dorn dives into the sewers of the LA sex industry to find her.

Much as with his sometime collaborator Martin Scorsese, there’s always a question of how much Schrader is repelled by his subject matter and how much he is fascinated by it. Certainly with Hardcore they are two sides of the same coin and in this respect the way that Van Dorn is forced by Mast to confront the unpleasant realities of life is undoubtedly Schrader exorcising his demons (it is well-known that he  had a strict Calvinist upbringing) as Van Dorn eventually has to acknowledge the fact that it is his dogmatism that has driven his daughter to self-destructive behaviour (and also driven his wife away).

As always with films with a certain agenda Hardcore tends to be more of an illustrated morality lesson than a self-sufficient drama. Much of the film is given over to showing us various aspects of the sex industry as Van Dorn trawls sex shops, peep shows and massage parlours his pride crumbling in the face of the tawdriness. Fortunately Scott has such a strong presence that he is able to make this under-developed character credible, even bringing off a scene in which he pretends to be a porno film producer complete with blow-wave, moustache and bling.  Clearly Schrader’s model here is John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), something which he acknowledges with Mast’s nickname for him, "Pilgrim", which doubles nicely to highlight Van Dorn’s spiritual odyssey.

Although there are many interesting elements in Hardcore not least of which is a Taxi Driver-ish vibe (both films were shot by  cinematographer Michael Chapman) it doesn’t come off as a whole. Perhaps some more time establishing Van Dorn’s relationship with his daughter would have helped (Schrader signals some tension but it is somewhat misleading) and the film’s ending is clumsy, a farrago of hasty action scenes topped off with an inverted Chinatown via movie-of-the-week ending.




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