[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Paul Schrader’s concept for Hardcore strikes me as a great idea for a movie. But he has overwritten it so shamelessly and directed it so hamhandedly that the result is a shambles. Much of Hardcore is handled so ineptly I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Long before the moment (which should have been a shattering one) when religious conservative businessman Jake VanDorn finally discovers his runaway daughter after a nightmarish search through the underworld of the pornography industry, only to learn that his little girl enjoys the decadent world she’s run away to, we know what’s coming and it arrives with little more than a hohum. After going through what Schrader surely views as a hellâ€”like the hell of New York in Taxi Driver or the hell of guilt and truth in Obsessionâ€”the two speak to each other in platitudes, with flabby, clichÃ© explications of character. Schrader’s problems in building to and sustaining a climax are most evident in the one scene that is still a tooth-grinder. But the what-are-we-going-to-see? frisson when the projector starts running for three $100-a-seat customers in a whorehouse back room quickly fades when the viewing of the “snuff” filmâ€”a Sadean assertion that pain and death are the ultimate pornographyâ€”is a short, fake, flaccid emotional experience, not the searing climax it should have been.
Much of the limpness of Hardcore‘s attempt to evoke viewer tension and empathy is due to Schrader’s weakness for giving space to long lectures, speeches, and dialectic dialogues, and for repeating himself. He persists in his themes that were better realized by DePalma in Obsession and Scorsese in Taxi Driver: parents and child, the father as rescuer and potential lover, the blurring of hero and villain in one person, the taint of corruption, the relativism of justice, and the essentially Calvinist ethics of wiping out the scum of the earth with their own methodsâ€”a job that can never be completed, and that serves only to taint those who attempt it. Calvinism is crucial to the film, of course, and we learn rather more than we need to know about the tenets of the Dutch Reformed Church in the course of VanDorn’s philosophical dialogues with Niki, the hooker who helps him find his daughter. On the one hand Schrader seems to recognize the narrowness of the view of life depicted in VanDorn, because L.A. private eye Andy Mast’s condescending attitude toward VanDorn’s provincialism (“things you don’t know about in Grand Rapids, doors that shouldn’t be opened”) is patently endorsed by the film, to the point of ascribing a near-idiotic naÃ¯vetÃ© to VanDorn and his friends and neighbors in Middle America. But on the other hand, Schrader himself seems to subscribe to the neo-Calvinist’s morally jaundiced view. Hardcore, with its steady escalation of sexual deviance, proposes a world-view in which the voyeurist’s pleasure in watching a naked woman and the sadist’s pleasure in murdering one are different only in degree, not in kind. And in the least likely place of allâ€”plastered to the side of the worldly Andy Mast’s refrigeratorâ€”we can dimly glimpse a bumper sticker that seems to reaffirm, if only in fancy, the moral reactionism of Schrader’s film: “Jesus is coming, and he’s mad as hell.”
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Screenplay and direction: Paul Schrader. Cinematography: Michael Chapman. Production design: Paul Sylbert. Editing: Tom Rolf. Music: Jack Nitzsche. Executive producer: John Milius.
The players: George C. Scott, Season Hubley, Peter Boyle, Dick Sargent, Leonard Gaines.