Hardcore (1979)

Jake VanDorn lost amongst the lights of an uncharted underworld.

The heart-breaking story of a father’s undying love for his daughter, “Hardcore”, was written and directed by Paul Schrader in the spring of 1979. It is widely argued that Hardcore was one of many movies conceived from the film directed by John Ford, “The Searchers”, twenty-five years prior in 1954. According to “Stuart Byron”, an established and well respected film critic in the 1970’s, “the Searchers is the Super-Cult movie of the New Hollywood”; which went on to inspire an abundance of very talented, up and coming screenwriters and directors in the art of characterization, dialogue and narrative structuring. The outstanding members of this ‘New Hollywood’ consisted of “Paul Schrader, John Milius, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Michael Cimino”; who went on to create movie sensations such as Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dillinger, Mean Streets, Big Wednesday, The Deer Hunter, The Wind and the Lion, Ulzana’s Raid, Star Wars and of course, Hardcore… not a bad collection, to say the least. Stuart Byron goes on to argue that these movies, especially Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Deer Hunter and Hardcore, all have fundamental similarities in their basic narrative structure and characterization to John Ford’s The Searchers. For example, each movie possesses “an obsessed man searches for someone-a woman, a child, a best friend- who has fallen into the clutches of an alien people. But when found, the sought one doesn’t want to be rescued”.

Conservative midwestern Calvinistic families, no strangers to blemishes.

Hardcore’s saga opens in Midwest America, moving through the very dreary and gloomy looking state of Michigan whilst a woman’s distant voice sings out the old church hymn ‘Precious Memories’. The opening montage shots of a lackluster and colorless location really sets the scene of a family lifestyle that perhaps offers little to be desired; except if you’re Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott) and his heavy congregation of pious Calvinists. Jake VanDorn’s religious environment is almost one of ancestral, full of love and protection for it’s community, and without a doubt, a world that is seen through rose-tinted glasses. Jake’s spiritual relationships with his family are revealed as the only sincere and fulfilled connections throughout the entire film. Even near the conclusion of the narrative, Jake’s unwavering religious beliefs are still full of the same enthusiasm, remaining steadfast against all transgressions and temptations that he encounters on his forage for righteousness.

“All we, like sheep, have gone astray”

Corresponding back to The Searchers narrative, an identical situation occurs where Ethan’s niece, Debbie, goes missing and there’s no idea to her whereabouts. This time it’s Jake’s daughter, Kristen VanDorn (Ilah Davis), who disappears while away on a church rally in California. When Jake is informed that his precious, innocent angel must have been kidnapped he hires a private investigator, Detective Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), to begin the search for her. After some time of investigating, Mast reports back of his findings. To Jake’s disbelief and horror, Mast tracks his daughter down to an 8-millimeter amateur porno movie. In comparison to The Searchers, just as Debbie is tainted in Ethan’s eyes when the Comanche commandeer her to be a part of their tribe, Kristen is also similarly corrupted by the porn underworld who entice her in and away from Jake’s sheltering arms.

Jake’s painful grimace as he watches the truth revealed about his daughter.

After Detective Mast inflicts the ultimate pain upon Jake, Mast imposes the hurt even further when he explains that the movie can’t be traced; “Nobody made it. Nobody sold it. Nobody sees it. It doesn’t exist”. However, just like Ethan in The Searchers, Jake refuses to give up and decides to battle on regardless of what is in store for him in uncharted territory; vowing to follow his daughter into the depths of the sexual underworld to bring her back home. As Jake searches through the belly of the whale for his daughter, although he is sickened and repulsed by the sex scenes and nudity on show, Jake does appear to become hardened by his new surroundings the longer his hunt endures. It’s almost as if the more sin and evil Jake is exposed to, the more numb he becomes, gradually filling him with hate and anger as each days passes. This is seemingly the same psychological breakdown that Ethan in The Searchers experiences. Greil Marcus, a world renowned author and culture critic, related Ethan to “Captain Ahab, an American hero gone mad. In pursuing the monster, he becomes the monster himself”. The longer Ethan hunted down the Comanche, the more he became like them. The same can perhaps be said of Jake VanDorn in Hardcore; the closer he gets to the beast, that is, the pimp who is holding his daughter, the closer he becomes one himself. That is hinted by Schrader very subtly within the narrative, that “Jake is as obsessively controlling of women as the pimp who has taken possession of his daughter – Kristen has traded in one manipulative father figure for another”.

Niki introduces herself to Jake in the quest to find his missing daughter.

This concept is evidenced in Jake’s newly found relationship with Niki (Season Hubley), a porn star, stripper and general handy-woman of the sexual underworld. Jake befriends Niki because she might know a guy, who knows a guy, who might know where his daughter is. Considering Niki was the biggest break Jake had stumbled across during his whole time of searching, this was a substantial lead into eventually finding his daughter. Consequently, he offers to pay Niki a large sum of money to accompany him to San Diego. However, little did Jake know the intelligence and insight he would come to learn from her, and more importantly, learn about himself. Yes, Niki was just like all the other lost girls who drifted to California for the fame and money, yet found themselves in the porn industry instead. Nonetheless, Niki was smart and she knew exactly why she did what she did, there were no qualms about it. The one thing Niki did lack was guidance, “she has a deep psychological need for a father figure, a need she thinks Scott can meet”. As Jake and Niki converse and share ideals about “sex, religion and morality”, it is perhaps Niki who shows Jake how to be a true father-figure, through “speaking in real words about real things”. Niki perhaps thought she was about to be saved by this God-loving, wealthy, Christian man, but it was in fact Jake who needed to be saved by her. Jake learnt to love unconditionally and took real care of Niki during their time together, regardless of who she was or what she had done in the past; which enabled Jake to grow as a father and a more complete human being, to act with more grace and understanding towards his daughter. I do not believe Kristen would have had desires to leave her family home in Michigan if he had always been that type of father in the first place.

Jake learns how to love unconditionally, with the help of Niki.

Although Jake’s character does undergo some kind of revolution, Ethan’s stark transformation in The Searchers, of “rage given over to love, age reconciled to youth, feminine united to masculine, a psychotic reconnected to his soul” does possess more of a completed character arc from start to finish, “from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again”. Ethan Edward’s odyssey goes full circle, ending his journey in exactly the same position as he begins it; a lonely enigma. Even after Ethan had overcome hatred with love, weakness with strength and conquering his inner demons, after all was said and done, his ordinary world was one of “solitude, separateness, alienation ”.  This is a much more interesting and fulfilled character arc, “the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realizes his goal, brings her back and then walks away”, than the happy ending that Hardcore presents to us. For me, this is the major flaw in Paul Schrader’s narrative. Schrader goes from dealing with themes such as the depths of the sexual underworld, religion, parenting guidance, psychological needs, to executing the climax with “a combination of cheap thrills, a chase, and a shoot-out”. From the words of Roger Ebert, “the movies ending is a mess”; he couldn’t have said it any better. If Schrader had learnt anything from The Searching, and Ethan’s character in particular, he should have known that Jake VanDorn and his daughter couldn’t possibly go back to their quiet Christian lives in Michigan after everything they had both been through. Somehow, we go from Jake and Niki together, to Niki completely disappearing without any resolution to their newly formed relationship, to Jake and Kristen being alone together, to father and daughter having a brief exchange of words, and as a result their relationship is then miraculously healed enough for the two to go back home… it just doesn’t add up. “How on earth can he and his daughter possibly recover from what they’ve seen and experienced?”.

Hardcore 2.jpg
Could Schrader have gone a different way with Hardcore’s conclusion?

That being said, Schrader does explore some very deep and meaningful themes and emotions within Hardcore that are “pure revelational”. However, Schrader’s writing dived so far deep into real human issues, that he just couldn’t find a way out to resolve them; he had got himself so carried away and lost within the sexual underworld, that he had completely forgotten to create an escape route for his characters. So he panicked, and recklessly inserted a fairytale happy ending scene into a film that isn’t whimsical or romantic in the slightest. Regardless of the films shortcomings, there are more than enough reasons to park yourself in front of the television and watch this movie; if only to witness George C. Scott with a fake moustache and wearing a comical Hawaiian shirt.

Saved the best till last.