The Underrated: Hardcore
Looking for images from this film has made me despair of humanity. Seriously. I knew it was going to happen, and it is asking for trouble, but you just try typing “hardcore” into google and see what you get. Eventually, on page 900, buried beneath a quite impressive selection of gay porn (and weirdly the odd photo of Darth Vader) you will eventually locate Paul Schrader’s 1979 classic.
My Lord this is a depressing film. George C Scott plays uptight Calvinist douchebag Van Dom, who is compelled to leave his mid-Western sanctuary to confront all the demons of the filth industry when his daughter goes missing in LA. Hardcore plots his journey through the sleazy porn underworld, aided only by Peter Boyle’s dreadfully grimy PI and Season Hubley’s stereotypical tart with a heart.
This is a great film. There’s really no two ways about it, and a good part of the reason for its greatness is Scott as Van Dom. He’s an unlikable prick (the first time we see him he’s berating his designer), with extreme Calvinist sensibilities, and he’s completely unequipped for the underbelly of America. Scott plays this well. He fluctuates between steely determination, manic obsessiveness and disgusting condescension. Boyle is also superb as the dirty Private Eye, and Hubley (who seems to have made a career out of this) is simply outstanding as the flat-chested hooker who believes that Van Dom will save her. The acting is superb all round.
As a rule, the writing is also good. I’ve a few major complaints about it that I will deal with later, but there are several simply superb pieces of writing in this film. Van Dom’s explanation of Calvinism to the hooker is, in particular, a breathtakingly good piece of exposition. I intensely dislike Calvinism, and Schrader was obviously drawing on his own background for this character. Everything Van Dom does is informed by his belief in pre-determination: he is guaranteed entry to heaven regardless of his behaviour on Earth, and only those already on the list are allowed in. Hubley simply stares at him while he’s explaining it- because it is a cold and repellent dogma. If anyone out there is Calvinist, then I strongly suggest that you go and read “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” by James Hogg and have a long think about things. Fucking scumbags.
Anyhoo, pointless religion rant aside, back on track. There are several simply superb scenes in this film- Van Dom pursuing the teenage sleaze merchant through the San Fransisco sex-club where he literally bursts through the paper-thin walls bellowing like an enraged rhino, or the “oh my God, that’s my daughter” scene when Boyle first shows him the porn with his little girl getting cornholed. Quite why he had to sit through that is a mystery known only to Schrader, but nevertheless it is still a powerful scene. However, for sheer laughs, in a film short of cheerful moments, check out Van Dom’s meeting with Big Dick Blaque. Fucking hilarious stuff.
Hardcore is not a perfect film. To begin with, it is out of time, coming out years after the Deep Throat phenomenon. There are several rather large leaps of faith that the viewer has to make- that Van Dom can don a crappy tropical shirt, fake ‘stache and suchlikes and instantly pass as a porn director, for example. Nevertheless, that isn’t my real problem with it. I had heard about this before I saw the film, and it’s something that I didn’t really believe until I saw it, but there is a scene where Van Dom meets a porn distributor. This, in itself, fits well into the narrative, but Schrader couldn’t help himself from allowing his right-wing reactionary conservative asshole self from peeking out from behind the script. The porn guy advises Van Dom to start “small” and move up the ladder, and by small he means kiddie porn. There is, Schrader you fucking cocksmoker, a whole world of difference between Child Pornography and any other type of porn and you lessen the offense and stigma of the former by merely associating it with the whole gamut of smut that is available. Listen up, Schrader, kiddie porn is evil shit and not remotely the same as “ordinary” filth. Quite how one could make that blanket assertion is beyond me.
This is the thing about Hardcore that will decide whether or not it can be considered a great film: Schrader allows far too many glimpses of his actual personality to seep through the cracks in the script. There are plenty of occasions where he’s not telling a story, but lecturing the viewer. I do admit that he is a well-recognised cosmos-sized asshole, but it made for uneasy viewing for me to see someone so clearly twisted by a religious upbringing lecture me.
This is also an intensely violent film, but there’s a nasty shred of justification running through it. Van Dom is liable to snap and attack someone at any minute, and when he does it’s a graphic and painful looking assault- clobbering the kid with a lamp leaping to mind- but the implication is always that Van Dom is “justified” in his actions. Calvinism in action. However, Schrader does allow some subtext to seep through the film (Van’s wife couldn’t take it and buggered off) that at least partially mitigates the action on screen.
Overall, I have to say that I do recommend watching this film. It’s a fascinating insight into a nasty religion, and even if it weren’t, it is still an exciting film. Nevertheless, the real reason to watch Hardcore is for the performances, Scott in particular is simply outstanding and the effort that the leads bring to the film makes the experience worth while.
Hardcore is, I believe, a severely flawed but seriously underrated film- good, but no Taxi Driver or even Blue Collar.
Until next time,