“Oh my god. That’s my daughter.”
In the last few years, writer/director Paul Schrader’s work has fallen off pretty significantly, and that’s a shame. It’s hard to watch Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist or The Canyons and remember just what an important and influential voice Schrader was during the 1970s and ‘80s, whether through his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) or as a director himself. His second directorial effort, 1979’s Hardcore, is a reminder of just how vital a voice Schrader once had, brought to beautiful life on Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray release of the overlooked film.
Essentially a reworking of John Ford’s The Searchers (and, to some extent, Schrader’s own screenplay for Taxi Driver), Hardcore casts the great George C. Scott (The Exorcist III) as Jake Van Dorn, a conservative and successful Midwestern businessman whose daughter (Ilah Davis) disappears mysteriously during a Church retreat to California. He hires a shady private investigator (Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein) to locate her and he returns with an 8mm film of Jake’s daughter acting in a porn. Determined to bring her back home, Jake ventures west and more or less goes undercover in the sleazy world of porn and sex workers, teaming up with a hooker (Season Hubley, Escape from New York) with connections to the darkest corners of the porn subculture.
The seedy subculture stuff isn’t what stands out about Hardcore, as it doesn’t really seem to depict anything or appear more authentic than much of what we’ve seen in a dozen other movies (including Joel Schumacher’s 8MM, a movie that owes a tremendous debt to this one). The best aspect of Hardcore is its character study of Jake Van Dorn, a man who sees himself as upstanding and pious and who is tested through his experiences. By pairing him up with Season Hubley’s character, Van Dorn’s flaws are put into sharp relief; Schrader is too smart a writer to suggest that she is the “good” one and he is the broken one, but the fact that they meet more in the middle than Van Dorn could have expected is what makes Hardcore such a compelling movie, particularly for the ways in which Van Dorn denies that fact. There isn’t enough good to be said about George C. Scott, an actor who has always existed as a force in my life without my ever really digging in and analyzing his performances. Between recently revisiting his work in the underrated Exorcist III and now Hardcore, it’s clear that Scott is among the all-time greats (and these aren’t even the roles for which he’s best known or remembered). His most famous scene in the film, in which he suffers a near total breakdown while being shown the film of his daughter for the first time, is utterly devastating and completely fuels the second half of the movie. Van Dorn’s actions make more sense in the wake of that sequence, but they also betray who both he and we in the audience believe him to be as the movie opens. It’s an incredible piece of acting.
While it’s tangentially about the ever-growing porn industry of the 1970s and the sleazification of New York during that same time, what makes Hardcore so powerful is that it’s really about the relationship between a parent and his child. Van Dorn, a single father, has too long been caught up in his own ambitions and success. The idea that his daughter might disappear — or, even worse, might appear in porn not by force but of her own volition — is so unthinkable that it rocks him to his core. It would for any of us, and the lengths to which he is willing to go to find her and bring her back home may seem extreme or overly dramatized for those in the audience who don’t have kids. Parents watch it, however, and think “Yeah, I would go to that place if it were me.” The contradiction between a justifiable crusade and the protagonist’s own hypocrisy makes Hardcore a fascinating film, one which is willing to exist in the murky shades of grey that so many post-‘70s movies have tried to avoid.
Twilight Time’s HD presentation of Hardcore is characteristically stunning. The 1.85:1 framed movie appears in full 1080 HD and looks fantastic. The opening sequences are naturalistic and full of strong detail, but as the movie goes on and Schrader gets more experimental with his lighting, the colors are vivd and gorgeous. The main audio presentation is a lossless mono track that offers clear dialogue and a decent mix of music and effects, all presented through the front center channel. For those who enjoy Jack Nitzsche’s moody score, Twilight Time has offered their usual option of a separate track containing the isolated score. They’ve also included the original trailer and two commentaries, the first with writer/director Schrader and the second from film historians Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo. Their conversation is livelier but shorter on true insight, though they do discuss the fact that this was originally going to be a Warren Beatty movie until he insisted on too many changes.
Like with almost all Twilight Time titles, the disc is only available in a limited run of 3,000 units; after that, you’ll be paying way too much on eBay and through second market sellers. If you want this in your collection, don’t sleep on it. As with a lot of great films of the 1970s, it charts a kind of descent from faith and idealism to bleak cynicism — the reactions of a generation of filmmakers who felt betrayed by their country post Vietnam, post Watergate, post you-name-it. Hardcore often gets overlooked in the discussion of ‘70s cinema, maybe because it came so late and maybe because Schrader’s other credits overshadow it. Between the director’s willingness to explore this subject matter with darkness and depth, George C. Scott’s powerhouse performance and Twilight Time’s excellent work on this Blu-ray release, this one deserves your attention.