Back in school I had to take a video production course. We were constantly being warned about the pitfalls of pornography while taking the course. This was during the beginning of the internet boom when everyone with a video camera and minor HTML knowledge was setting up some kind of porno website and making money hand over fist. I swear to you, one night, past midnight at the Kinko’s that may or may not still be on Aloma Avenue in Orlando, I sat at a workstation next to a guy who spent hours scanning polaroids of women with dirty feet and torn lingerie into the computer. One of the guys in my group eventually broke down and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he raked in $1500 a week on a website that catered to men who liked women who looked like they were strung out and a quick trip up the Orange Blossom Trail with $200 could produce a series of several sick looking ladies that would make the dude a ton of money. For a moment we all wondered what we were doing slaving away at one in the morning putting together a fake business plan for school. Those dire warnings from our instructors rang into our heads. If you get into porno, you’ll never get out and work on legitimate film and video projects as long as you live. You’ll make a lot of money, but there’s no going back once you’re in.
Hardcore explores those seductive and ruining natures of porno. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, responsible for the script for Martin Scorcese’s seminal feature, Taxi Driver, Hardcore is a combination of revenge elements explored in his script for Rolling Thunder while taking cues from Taxi Driver about a man whose values are driven and crafted by necessity and his environment. It’s no Taxi Driver but it’s a gritty, nasty look at an industry of exploitation and a red light district bulldozed and forgotten in many American towns and cities.
Jake Van Dorn is a clean living Calvinist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’s a hard-headed business owner, a stand-up member of his religious community and a single father to a rather ordinary and naive teenage daughter, Kristen. When Kristen disappears from Knott’s Berry Farm while on a church group trip to California, Jake and his brother-in-law Wes travel to Los Angeles to discover a seedy world that is unlike anything they are familiar with. The police, buckling under the weight of hundreds, potentially thousands of missing children cases are practically helpless to do anything about her disappearance. Jake and Wes are referred to a sleazy private investigator who specializes in runaway cases. What he finds shatters Jake’s relatively insulated view of the world. He shows Jake a short porno movie called Slave Of Love wherein Jake’s daughter plays the role of the titular slave. This discovery sends Jake spiralling out of his depths and into a world of cheap thrills and exploitation.
I never felt like George C. Scott received his due. It’s as if his portrayal General Patton confined him, forever, to that loud-mouthed pigeonhole and in spite of several outstanding roles in the man’s career, he’s always pictured by people delivering a fiery speech before the American flag. Patton’s fucking fantastic, but as Jake Van Dorn, Scott sells it big time. In the early scenes as we establish our hero, he can be seen as a man who contains the parts of the human animal snugly within the outer shell of a self-loathing Calivinist. It’s not overt self-hatred, of course, it’s just part of his strict spiritual code. He looks like the kind of guy who is barely holding it together, though. At any moment, he could snap and given Scott’s gravelly voice and large presence, he seems like a scary man. For the moment, though, he’s just a stand-up guy, isolated from the rest of the world. Upon seeing his daughter in a part of the world that he chooses to ignore, the cracks in the foundation begin to show.
Private Eye, Andy, played by a suitably sleazy Peter Boyle, turns up nothing for some time and is found at his California apartment, by Jake, literally taking the pants off a porn starlet. In a rage, Jake fires him and takes up his search alone. He hits the red light district with a photo of his daughter and practically goes door to door on every massage parlor in the city asking for her only to wind up tossed out and roughed up a bit. As he grows more desperate, he realizes that his tactics are going to have to change if he plans on finding Kristen. Jake poses as a Michigan business man with some money to invest in a porno film and meets with a big producer on the scene who advises him to start smaller. As a matter of fact, his recommendation is to start in kiddie porn and move up from there.
While Hardcore is definitely a gritty, nasty movie, it has a tendency to dip into parody whether it realizes this or not. From the start, it seems like the logical progression of the urban legend about the man at the stag party who sees his daughter in the porno that they show. While pornography IS a an exploitative industry and I’m sure that a sector of it is run by desperate psychopaths, Hardcore depicts the entire industry as innately predatory from top to bottom. As Jake nears his end, he’s taken to see a snuff movie in a massage parlor as if it’s no big deal.
His next idea is to place an open casting call for a porno in the local free press. The result is a flurry of male actors, yet Jake is looking for one man in particular who does show up. “Jism” Jim Sloane, a strung out looking hustler turns up and turns out to be one of the men in the photo. Jake makes it clear that he’s in but he’s looking for the girl in the picture, too. Jim flies off the handle and freaks out. The girl in the photo is a total freak, according to him, and there’s no way he’ll work with her. Jim’s claims that she’s a whore sends Jake flying off the handle as well and he winds up clocking Jim with a lamp and pressing him for information on the wherabouts of his daughter. He gets a couple of names, Todd and Nikki. Todd’s whereabouts are unknown but Nikki is working the peep show booths at a strip club that features a tittilating “naked Darth Vader” vs. “naked Luke Skywalker” lightsaber battle on the main stage. For a couple of bucks, he discovers that Todd isn’t in town, he’s in San Diego and with Nikki in tow, Jake heads to San Diego only to find that Todd is in San Francisco.
Nikki, played by Season Hubley, is clearly supposed to be the sidekick in this adventure, but she’s such an ancillary character and at no point ever adds anything to Jake’s quest aside from occasional peek and mild sexual tension. There are hints of a surrogate daughter notion, but by this point in the movie, things are happening so fast that the movie dares not stray from it’s descent into the hellish world of the sex trade.
While all of this is happening, Jake’s brother in law, Wes, played by Bewitched’s Dick Sargent, gets back in touch with Andy the private eye and hires him to find Jake and keep him out of trouble. During the hunt for Todd, Jake hears a name which seems to send shudders down the spine of everyone Jake comes into contact with. Ratan seems to be a man who specializes in niche fantasy material and is the missing link in finding Kristen. What Jake discovers about Ratan sends him plunging head first into the sleazy world he has, apparently, only been on the periphery of. Todd shows a Jake a snuff movie wherein Ratan murders a bound woman. So now time seems to be of the essence if Jake hopes to find Kristen alive.
Hardcore serves a Dante style tour of Hell. Nearly the entire movie takes place in seedy motel rooms and red light districts, getting worse as it goes along. It begins with porno movie set visits and works its way up to peep show booths stained with “fluids” until it gets to what could be considered the coup de grace, a snuff movie that’s actually pretty tame in comparison to the sort of shit that would come out in later times as the bar was raised.
On the downside, the entire movie seems to want to be in so many places at once and show you so much depravity that every scene seems like a snapshot. Many of the second string players such as Wes the brother in law and Nikki the pornstar/prostitute seem to have little to do with the rest of the movie. Dick Sargent stands on the sideline casting concerned looks for Jake’s sake but his role is never clearly defined. Nikki seems to do nothing but lounge on motel beds and make passionless statements about her role in the industry. Jake could have, quite possibly, found his way to his daughter without her. Then again, every script needs a female companion and she seems to be it.
The vignette nature of the movie seems to be the only thing holding it back from being a genuinely great flick. Coming as it does from Schrader and with a relatively high profile cast, it’s surprising that it never gained a larger audience. Every performance, with few exceptions, really shines and the setting is so genuinely gross that you don’t want to touch anything, even in the comfort of your own living room! An overlooked gem that either suffered for living in the shadow of Taxi Driver or for it’s uncomfortable portrayal of porn, Hardcore is a cheap DVD that deserves your attention.