The 1979 film Hardcore is Paul Schrader’s second movie as a director, but he had already been a huge part of the “movie brat” phase of the New Hollywood era by that time. After co-writing The Yakuza with his brother Leonard in 1974, he went on to write Taxi Driver, perhaps the best film to come out of that scene next to The Godfather, and certainly Schrader’s best work as a writer. After writing two more films, he was finally allowed to direct a movie from one of his scripts, 1978’s Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel. However, it was Hardcore where he was at his most personal and autobiographical.
George C. Scott plays Jake VanDorn, a middle-age Calvinist father from the midwest whose daughter has disappeared after a school trip to California. I suppose Scott, who was over fifty when Hardcore was filmed, seems a bit old to be the father of a teenage daughter. But his age actually works to the film’s advantage in that the lines and creases and general worn look of his face reflects the inner turmoil of the character and gives him a very tired kind of look. In the commentary on the new limited edition Twilight Time release, Schrader talks about Scott’s drinking problem, which was quite severe at the time. He says that Scott was “not a very happy man.” Of course, this made him perfect for the role of a man who was never very happy to begin with, but is thrust completely into the rabbit hole of despair when his daughter is apparently abducted. Also on the commentary track, Shrader shares the story in which he first met Scott. Apparently the man liked to disrobe almost completely when he drank, and so Schrader found him at a bar, standing around in nothing but his underwear. He was raging. “Where’s that cocksucker who thinks he can direct?” Scott said. “That would be me, George,” Schrader replied.
Things went a little more smoothly after that between lead actor and director, but Scott, who was notoriously temperamental, wouldn’t let up on Schrader. On a shoot in San Francisco, Scott refused to come out of his trailer and do his scenes until Schrader promised never to direct again. He thought Schrader was a good writer, but a terrible director. Schrader made the promise. After all, he needed Scott to get to work. Schrader obviously went on to direct again. And when Scott met Schrader years later, he brought up Schrader’s broken promise.
As for Paul Schrader, the Grand Rapids native lived a life very similar to the one depicted at the beginning of Hardcore. He and his older brother Leonard came from a very strict Calvinist background where they weren’t allowed to watch movies. (Calvinism is based on the Protestant theological system that places faith above everything else, even facts). As a result, Schrader didn’t see a movie until he was a teenager. It was The Nutty Professor and he wasn’t impressed. However, subsequent trips to the theater proved more exciting and he ended up going to film school in LA and briefly served as a film critic before he wrote The Yakuza with his brother. The Yakuza was his permanent ticket into the film industry. If we’re to judge by his commentary track on this newest release of Hardcore, Schrader is immensely dissatisfied with his sophomore directorial effort. Throughout, he says things like, “God, I wish I’d moved the camera.” True, the camerawork is pretty static for most of the movie, but for me that was one of the film’s great strengths. Underneath his moralizing, VanDorn is a very cold person, and an objective camera really helps to emphasize the villain inside the man even as he tries to play the hero.
The spine of the story was heavily influenced by The Searchers, the 1956 film starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. We know that Wayne’s character, Ethan, is a bad dude from the moment we first meet him. He’s an ex-Confederate curmudgeon who doesn’t consider his adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) family, partly because he’s not blood related, but mostly because Martin is about 10% Cherokee and Ethan hates Native Americans. This will come into play when Ethan’s niece and Martin’s cousin Debbie (Natalie Wood) is the sole survivor of a Comanche raid and is taken hostage. Like VanDorn and his daughter, finding Debbie becomes an obsession. But whereas VanDorn searches for five months, Ethan and Martin spend five years singularly devoted to finding Debbie. However, as time goes by Ethan becomes increasingly concerned that Debbie has gone native, which is, for him, a cardinal sin. By the end of the movie, Ethan’s focus shifts from rescuing Debbie to killing her, which is, in his eyes, also a form of saving her. Like Hardcore, the sexual implications are all over the place. Debbie going native means she’s taken up with a native man, which means not only is she not a virgin anymore, but she’s been violated by someone Ethan considers less than human, becoming, in effect, a savage herself. Ultimately, when the Comanche camp is raided, Ethan looks at his niece and just can’t pull the trigger and he takes her home.
In both films the girl ends up going home, but there are several key differences, which only become clear as Hardcore reaches its climax. VanDorn is convinced that his daughter has been kidnapped, but that turns out not to be true. Ultimately, it’s revealed that she left home to get away from her father’s suffocating and dark morality. And, of course, one can’t help but see that the main characters in both movies are driven by a concern with the girl’s virginity. VanDorn learns that his daughter isn’t a virgin through the rather crude method of being forced by a private detective (Peter Boyle) to watch his daughter perform in a raw 8mm loop. But even after that, the concern is to remove her from any scene of the sexual activity. After all, there is no way a girl, a good girl from suburban Michigan, could perform such acts of her own free will. Finally, at the end of Hardcore as with The Searchers, the girl comes home to an uncertain future. Ethan, basically Debbie’s guardian now, will probably never fully accept her again after five years with “savages.” And at the end of Hardcore, VanDorn and his daughter have reached an uneasy peace. VanDorn promises to try to show more compassion, to be a better father, to not be so judgemental, but is that even possible at this late stage in his life? And after what she’s been through, will she be able to re-integrate herself into this kind of society again? The answer is pretty obvious.
Another thing the two movies have in common is that their anti-hero protagonists fit the “God’s Lonely Man” archetype first laid out by novelist Thomas Wolfe in an essay of the same name. It’s a concept that Schrader clings to with an almost religious zeal. Wolfe argued that loneliness is “the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” It follows, then, that sometimes people who seem most integrated and at home as a functioning member of society are actually among the loneliest. VanDorn fits neatly into this rubric. He has every aspect of his life ordered and managed. He’s in control, or at least he thinks he is.
Schrader indeed doesn’t move the camera very much, but when he does it’s quite effective because of the contrast it creates. The beginning of the film is a perfect example of this. The patriarch, the man who thinks he has total control over his life, VanDorn, sits at the head of the table as a Christmas feast is about to be served. He’s surrounded on all sides by members of his extended family, who look on as he gives the blessing, rapt and respectful. The camera slowly pushes in until VanDorn fills the frame. The people on either side of him can still be seen, but by now we know just how unimportant they are. VanDorn is also in control of his employees at the furniture manufacturing shop that he owns. His passive-aggressive temperament keeps his employees in line. This power is isolating, of course, but being surrounded by family, being a prominent member of a church, can balm this strange loneliness.
VanDorn’s existential emptiness is illustrated profoundly when he returns from his first trip to LA after his daughter’s disappearance. Standing alone in her room, a typical late 70’s teenage girl’s room that gives no indication of her inner turmoil, he breaks down and starts crying. It’s the first of a few times we see him crying, and each time we get the sense that his tears come with a profound shame attached. Standing in an empty room decorated with bric-a-brac, the room is as empty as the man.
The second time VanDorn break into tears is in a seedy porno theater after Peter Boyle has brought him there to show him the porno loop. We understand the purpose of the scene, even if it does seem a little gratuitous. VanDorn needs to know the reality of the situation, leaving no ambiguity. The scene is a bit of a callback to Taxi Driver’s porno theater scenes. While Bickle has become numb to reality and therefore also numb to the images that flicker in front of his eyes as he sits in the porn house, VanDorn, who has never seen a porno film before, is given a sudden and shocking dose of reality. God’s Lonely Man seems to always exist in a state of unreality.
After firing Peter Boyle’s detective for getting a little too involved in the porno scene he’s investigating, VanDorn takes over the search on his own. He quickly learns that if he’s going to be accepted by this “alternative lifestyle,” then he needs to look the part. The tie is the first to go. By the end of the film he’s wearing weird pimp-like collared shirts that are an instant callback to the 70’s. But something else happens. VanDorn begins to take on the mannerisms, the strange sleazy hip swagger as his walks, the weird cool guy lean against the wall. We’re left wondering how much VanDorn is actually a part of the scene rather than simply imitating someone who is. The sleaze world has changed him, but what does it really matter which community he’s become emotionally isolated from? It’s all the same for God’s Lonely Man.
By the time VanDorn is in a shitty makeshift porno theater watching a snuff film, we’re left wondering if he’ll ever be able to find his way out of this strange rabbit hole. That VanDorn becomes so comfortable in the muck is no surprise. His soul has been in the muck all his life. The makeshift theater is simply a change of location. This is why we distrust his promise to his daughter that he’s going to change, to be a better father. He isn’t. He’s incapable of changing except superficially. The only thing he knows is his own discomfort, his own isolation.
Similar to Taxi Driver, Hardcore also includes a kind of savior character who works as a prostitute. Here it’s a woman in her early 20’s named Nikki (Season Hubley). Nikki knows someone who might know someone who can help find VanDorn’s daughter in San Diego. So VanDorn takes her there to help him investigate. Naturally Nikki and VanDorn have no common ground, though they desperately try to relate to each other. For her part Nikki figures out VanDorn’s story, as well as his daughter’s, without having to ask for details. The daughter’s story is her story, and the story of so many other girls, after all. A controlling father, a bored girl, a search for adventure. VanDorn holds onto the idea that if his daughter hasn’t been kidnapped, she’s at least involved in the world of porn and prostitution under coersion. He remains in denial until his daughter confronts him.
Surprisingly, Nikki and VanDorn do share, in a roundabout way, the same attitude toward sex. “How important do you think sex is?” she asks him. “Not very,” he replies. “Then we’re both alike.” His religion and her job brings them around to this general ambivalence.
If there is a tragic character, it’s Nikki. VanDorn may not have a chance to save her, but he can pull her out of her rotten situation, at least temporarily. Her time in a cheap hotel in San Diego is like paradise to her, and that’s why she withholds information that might help VanDorn; to tease the whole thing out a little longer. The safety, the comfort, the lounging on a bed watching TV, this is the kind of simple, safe life that she wants. VanDorn promises to help her out after they find his daughter, but of course that doesn’t happen. But did anyone really think that it would?
Schrader’s photography, his refusal to move the camera is quite blunt and works in capturing the sullen, uninspiring faces of the good church-going people of Grand Rapids. Personally, it seems like Schrader is being a little harsh. After all, there’s a lot to like about such a life, a cozy, quiet existence where people are generally humble and helpful. Things could certainly be a lot worse. But Schrader was clearly traumatized by his experiences here, and one thinks after seeing the Grand Rapids scenes that maybe he was pushed to the brink of insanity.
VanDorn wasn’t the first, and he would be far from the last of the lonely men that Schrader would write. His follow-up directorial effort, American Gigolo, features the almost stunningly handsome and young Richard Gere. With American Gigolo, Schrader finally carves out a directorial style, at least in terms of his beloved camera movement. The camera virtually glides in the first half, but still much more controlled in the latter half, repeating that icy quality we experienced with Hardcore.
Richard Gere’s male prostitute Julian is another character who doesn’t understand the depth of his own loneliness. But by the end, Schrader allows the possibility of a spiritual rebirth, something he wouldn’t allow Hardcore’s VanDorn. We know VanDorn will not change, but perhaps Julian will. American Gigolo allows us hope, and sometimes that’s all we can ask.