Near the end of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, an incandescently angry George C. Scott busts through thin, pasteboard walls with such focus and furious dedication that it looks like the kind of perverse, surrealistic nightmare that a wrathful Christian would have. It’s also strangely beautiful. He’s in the House of Bondage and Scott’s Calvinist Jake Van Dorn is chasing after a tight-jeaned, feathered-haired pornographer named Tod (Gary Rand Graham). The younger man breaks open the walls first with Jake raging and rampaging behind him, tumbling into spaces, pre or post-coitus. As Tod pushes his youthful, fit body through each wall, the older and bigger Jake bashes on along right after him, smashing through every partition and decimating the private sex rooms in this supposedly sturdy bondage lair. Jake tumbles into the rooms awash in the glow of each space’s different colored lights – green to blue to red – and this has to annoy him. He’s already proven in an earlier scene back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before he descended into red light hell searching for his runaway daughter, that he’s particular about colors. He cleverly and with an obsessive need for control manipulates his female display designer out of a certain shade of blue: “Don’t you think it’s a little too bright?” he asks, rhetorically. When she asks if he wants her to tone it down, he pulls reverse psychology on her and suggests a big stripe across the back wall. “No, that would be much too overpowering,” she says. He agrees with what he already agrees with. He asks what shade of blue it is – “Pavonine” she answers. Pavonine? Pavonine is a shade resembling a peacock. We now understand why he’s so put off by this hue. Or maybe he secretly loves it. That peacock blue has got to go.
So here is Jake pursuing Tod, a cock of the walk himself, after taking in excessive plumage during his underworld journey – more than he’s seen in his lifetime, including his own daughter in a hardcore 8mm porno called “Slave of Love.” Jake’s busting through walls so intensely we’re worried the entire structure will crash down on him. He can’t lose the chase. Though we almost fear watching what will happen to the man on the other end of Jake’s ire, no matter how sleazy and shitty that man is, we want Jake to catch up to him and knock him around. Because . . . he’s gotten this far. We’re yearning for his brutal release and the movie knows we yearn for this. This space, this delicately walled space hosting all kinds of pleasure and pain, serves those seeking bondage, humiliation, fear – things that require a safe word. Watching fury-filled Jake crash through each wall makes you wonder how many customers would be aroused by this spectacle. Or would that safe word be screamed out the moment a client saw Jake’s furious, pulsating face? We’ve already seen the biblically named dungeon doms, Faith, Hope and Charity, panic and scream in their black lingerie.
Fittingly, when Jake and Tod spill out onto the San Francisco street and into the outside real world – punching and rolling down a hilled sidewalk with garbage flying everywhere – Jack Nitzsche’s mind-bending, brilliant score is drowned by the sounds of celluloid flickering through a projector. The other times we’ve heard that sound (that I can recall) are first when Jake is tortured through his daughter’s porn film, enduring a father’s worst nightmare in that privately rented theater – famously and heartbreakingly yelling, “Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off!” The next time is when he watches the black & white snuff film starring his little girl’s boyfriend, the villainous Ratan (Marc Alaimo), in which a young woman is killed. On the street, the sound spikes the picture without a film showing, an interesting auditory decision. Is Jake so possessed by what he’s seen that he’s now hearing projectors in his head? Or are we so absorbed in this violence that the flickering sounds natural? Am I actually hearing this? Have I lost my mind? Jake finally forces Tod to submit by bashing his face into a pole.
It’s a powerfully concentrated, vivid sequence that intertwines myriad issues Scott’s God-fearing, distraught daddy is wrestling with, sometimes literally, as he shoves, shakes, punches and stomps his way around the porno world. If he’s not a physical man when it comes to sex, he’s presumably got no problem (enough to stop anyway) about expressing his body through violence, unleashing his wrath when the blood hits his brain. If his blood is hitting anywhere else, he shuts that shit down and sublimates carnality through brutality, its own kind of intercourse. The wrath of God is holy and justified. Rarely is a human’s wrath holy (justified is another question), but Jake fixes his fury on sinners like a divine power, impatient to wait for God. Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’’ Jake snarls: “I’m not gonna let this Tod slip through my hands! Now where is he?” The vulnerable young porn actress and booth girl, Niki (a wonderful Season Hubley) who is helping him, the one who just ditched her pimp and is latching onto Jake with a veneer of streetwise toughness, responds with worry: “But then you’ll forget about me!” His answer is brutal – he smacks Niki across the face and holds a clenched fist over her while grabbing her by the throat – and on a bed. He then kisses her on the forehead and reassures her. Why some critics think it unrealistic that Jake isn’t tempted by sex within this milieu shows that, perhaps, they don’t understand how drunk on violence this guy really is and how intimate that brutality feels. Jake’s spraying his anger all over the fucking place.
In fact, the Midwestern Christian square, who really isn’t square at all, is nearly becoming Niki’s new pimp (based on their power dynamic) and seems on the precipice of violence overflowing into sexual pleasure. But not quite yet. He’s about to find his daughter and he’ll leave Niki behind. And so, maybe he’ll close that box. Or not. But, now, there are too many colors in this red-light-land, ones alien to the snow-covered Calvinist world he came from, colors he cannot control, and his rage bursts not merely for those harming his daughter, but for those he’s likely harmed him before his descent. Maybe himself? Where is this violence coming from beyond his fixed fury of finding his girl? Why did his wife leave him? Why does his daughter hate him enough to take off with, not just a pornographer, but a guy who makes snuff films? It’s an extraordinary story and works like some paranoid fever dream and, yet, thanks to Scott and Hubley (and Peter Boyle and Dick Sargent) it feels rooted in an odd, familiar reality. We feel like we know or have known a few of these people.
But how well do we know Jake? He’s a complicated mystery and both Scott and Schrader intelligently keep him that way. Even as he discusses his ideology via the five points of Calvinism, he harbors some deep deep muck inside. There’s a lot more to Jake (and intuitive Niki figures this out – that his wife didn’t die, as he said she did, she instead bailed on him). And so, his violence, his discretion and his faith in this faithless world are fascinating and almost exotic when compared to his current surroundings. Explaining those points a.k.a TULIP (“T, for total depravity . . .” etc.) he’s strangely charming – he smiles and delights in his faith, but he’s unwavering and strong; he’s even attractive as this unusual, virile Calvinist and perhaps attractive to Niki, sexually or paternally – or both. Only in his last scene do we hear him apologize and confess culpability to his daughter’s fleeing and we’re not even sure how we feel about that.
What helps make the film so unforgettable is how much we wrestle with our feelings – ethical, sexual, religious if we’re religious or not and, just, how we feel about our hero. We don’t buy their happy ending (and Schrader himself wanted a different ending – his original found the daughter dying in a car accident unrelated to the porn world, a terrifically downbeat ending that can’t even blame pornography on her death). And yet, we don’t have to buy it. I feel like it works even with the weird, tacked on ending because questions linger as father and daughter walk back to their car, ready to return to downhome Grand Rapids. Like The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards (it’s no secret this film was inspired by Ford’s classic), he’s likely going to wander through his life lonely and broken. There’s no way he’ll return from this experience normal and she won’t either (Kristin, played by Ilah Davis) and he wasn’t normal to begin with. Whatever normal means.
We see glimpses of his lonely “normalcy” at the beginning of the picture during which Jake spends Christmas with his Calvinist friends and family. He has his daughter there but no wife and he seems like he’s been keeping it together for . . . how long? We don’t know. There’s something sad about this man. These scenes leading up to his daughter running off (or being kidnapped) during a church trip to California are fascinating, subtly funny and poignant. Schrader (who based this on his own background in Calvinism and his father, and set the movie in his own hometown, Grand Rapids) is taking their faith seriously; he’s not mocking it. When Jake and his brother-in-law, Wes (Sargent) hire Boyle’s boastful sleazy private detective, Mast, their innocence or, perhaps, lack of connection to the world he comes from is disarmingly touching – they sit with him nervously, hoping he tracks down the teenage girl and your heart breaks a little that they even have to be there. When Jake has taken matters into his own hands, going in deep to locate his daughter, Wes comes to see him in a divey Los Angeles motel, seriously concerned. A stony Jake hugs him and tells him to leave him alone. The furtiveness of Wes, and that Jake knows he cares about him is moving and sweet and unexpected – a balm he cannot handle. He’s got to stay, well, hard.
When Wes re-hires Mast (Jake fired him in a humorous scene in which Mast was caught indulging with a young woman: “Get out!” Jake orders. Mast protests: “But this is my apartment!”), you again feel for Wes. Even if you’re not anti-pornography (and I’m not, but one can see the complexity of one’s own feelings towards the life and what it can do to people), you want poor Wes to get the hell out of that damn place and go back home. Some people aren’t made for this. Fueled by righteous anger and something probably he even can’t even figure out, Jake, in his own way, is. You’re not sure while watching Jake fake-audition actors, disguised in a wig and moustache, clad in swinger-looking clothes and a gold chain, you can’t help but laugh at how much he’s trying to fit in. “I’m sorry Mr. Blaque, I’m sure you’re very good” he says professionally and kindly to an African-American actor (Hal Williams) who is yelling at him for being a racist, and not appreciating his penis size or his credentials. When the boy comes in who starred in his daughter’s porno and Jake has to play-act the interested producer (this is how he’ll track her down), the smug, slouchy kid spits out vile words about Jake’s daughter, fueling his rage to a terrifying degree. He beats the shit out of him. You’re not sure if he killed the kid until Mast later tells him he ruined his face. Within that scene, Mast (who calls him “Pilgrim,” a John Wayne and biblical nod) says he cares about his health and his daughter’s. You actually believe that while also feeling that Mast is a sleazebag loser. This movie drags your emotions and all over the place, like George C. Scott has you by the hair and won’t let go.
It often makes you sad, too. As dark and as violent as Hardcore is, as occasionally, irreverently funny, and as dreamlike those pasteboard walls are, it swirls around in your head with mixed emotions that lead to an effective emptiness. A key scene that always gets to me is when Jake drives through the Los Angeles red light district, with its dens of sin, strip clubs and sex shops flickering past him, eying his face in the rearview mirror like Schrader’s other “God’s lonely man,” Travis Bickle. Women in short-shorts strut the street and Jake seems, not repulsed, but focused towards his destination. Who knows what he’s really thinking. Nitzsche’s score blasts a warped, creepily gorgeous rock composition as Jake pulls up to a store and parks. When he walks into the shop, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Helpless” is playing (I can’t help but wonder if Carrie Snodgress saw this and had a moment, given her dramatic involvement with Nitzsche and Young). Neil Young sensitively, plaintively sings: “Blue, blue windows behind the stars/Yellow moon on the rise/Big birds flying across the sky/Throwing shadows on our eyes/Leave us Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless …” as Jake wanders through the store. It could seem too on-the-nose (Jake’s not getting any help at this moment), but the song paints a mournfully deep picture of loneliness.
It’s the last thing you’d want to hear perusing a porn shop on a solitary night, whether you were finding your daughter or not, and it speaks not to the moral dilemma of pornography, but to how lonely it can feel. For women and for men. With all of its questions of faith and men and women and sex and violence and running away and the differing confinements we run from and to, the movie can overcome you with poignant moments of vulnerability and sadness. Of feeling trapped. Watching this “Helpless” scene again (I’ve watched this scene countless times for some curious reason), I thought of Niki, and not Jake’s daughter, in an amusing moment, bitterly complaining to Jake that he at least has the power of faith to comfort him: “So I guess we’re both fucked, huh? But at least you get to go to heaven. I don’t get shit.” I always laugh when she says that, but by the end of the movie it just seems so heartbreaking – for both of them.
From my piece published at the New Beverly