Hardcore(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 9.14.2004)
After making an incredibly visceral, politically-charged directorial debut with the strangely forgotten Blue Collar, Paul Schrader wrote and directed this absorbing, but bizarrely square companion piece to Taxi Driver. Standing-in for Schrader's own Calvinist father (an inspiration Schrader has acknowledged in print), George C. Scott plays a staunchly religious widower from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose teenaged daughter abandons him -- for a life in porn.
For better and worse, re-visiting this film for the first time since 1998 made clear how extreme it really is. On the plus side, the score by Jack Nitzsche is an incredibly peculiar precursor to his work on Cruising (which resembles this film in several ways). Combining elements of his earlier work on Performance and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nitzsche creates sounds that radiate creepiness both mournful and psychedelic. It's just a shame this uniquely unsettling score has never been featured in a genuine horror film.
Nitzsche's score is effective largely because of how dramatically it clashes with other aspects of the film. While George C. Scott's Jake VanDorn and Schrader spend much of the film moralizing, this score evokes the mysterious threat (and allure) of the trashy sexual underworld that VanDorn submerges himself in while searching for his daughter. Even as VanDorn imagines himself a noble avenging angel, the score suggests that he may be losing his innocence in the process.
Unfortunately, Schrader is a vehemently anti-ironic filmmaker -- though this film does have moments of satirical wit -- who rarely allows his protagonists to betray their fundamental natures. In spite of VanDorn's widower status and obvious lack of a sex life, he has absolutely no personal interest in the sexual offerings on display. He's a religious man with complete disdain for the sexual impurity of contemporary American society, but rather than have VanDorn confront the temptation that would seem a natural fit for this mission, Schrader depicts him as completely and utterly repulsed.
Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle exhibits a similarly prudish asexuality but, unlike VanDorn, he experiences an evolution: from sexual curiosity to rejection to vengeance. Utterly lost, Bickle is searching for meaning, even if he has to find it through destruction. VanDorn, on the other hand, settled on his worldview long ago, which results in a frustratingly unwavering certitude. He's not interested in learning anything from his mission, he just wants to restore the status quo of his rigid religiosity.
This is not to suggest that it would be preferable for VanDorn to transform into some kind of unrepentant pervert, but his complete lack of doubt is dramatically stifling. The most puzzling part? Schrader seems to agree with VanDorn's sheltered perspective.
In any case, this remains an intriguing early effort from an unusually dark, philosophical young filmmaker (Schrader was only 32 when Hardcore was released). He's made many creative miscalculations over the years, but his prolific commitment to dark, challenging and personal material is unmatched among American auteurs.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc provides a suitable blend of seventies gloss -- which, let's face it, is downright gritty by today's standards -- and late night grunge, though the transfer appears to be unintentionally grainy at times. Sadly, in spite of Schrader's willingness to provide commentaries on several of his later films (including Cat People, Mishima, Forever Mine and Adam Resurrected), this disc is completely bare bones.
In the absence of commentary, be sure to read the writer/director's thoughts on Hardcore in Schrader on Schrader. He explains his problems with the film -- as of the mid-nineties anyway -- and its youthfully strident simplicity (though, again, by today's standards, this is an extremely challenging studio film). He also relays a memorable anecdote about George C. Scott drunkenly demanding that Schrader promise never to direct another film, only to discover the announcement of American Gigolo in Variety a few days later. -- Jonathan Doyle