MOST BAD MOVIES have some redeeming virtues--an ambitious idea, a suspenseful moment, some good acting, a little imaginative direction. Hardcore, however, is only interesting as evidence director Paul Schrader's professional sellout. As he plods through a made-for-TV-story, Schrader shows no inclination to communicate anything but his boredom.
The story of a Grand Rapids businessman tracking down his missing daughter in the seamy world of pornography had potential both as a commercial success and as a moving and controversial screenplay, but Schrader fails to introduce the powerful emotional issues that could have accomplished either. Although George C. Scott as the father gives the audience some agonized faces and fits of rage, even his performance is not compelling. The fiction of the film fails to reveal why the daughter runs away, or why she would agree--in the astonishingly unconvincing last scene--to come home. Nor does it suggest how the father accepts what has happened to his daughter.
If this excuse for a movie is a commercial success, it is only because the advance hype, George C. Scott in Hardcore," tittilated the public. The topic may be timely, but its treatment is stale.
The movie begins and ends in a pious condemnation of street life from a traditional, middle-class, Midwestern, Protestant perspective--a perspective which seems as foreign to Schrader as California is to Scott's bewildered father. Schrader's prototypes of middle class life, Grand Rapids, is nothing but a collection of hokey cliches. In the first five minutes, we see sledding kids, skating kids, kids watching TV, kids delivering the newspaper, daddies shoveling the sidewalk, mommy driving the car. Then comes religion--the snowy church, icons on the wall, grace before dinner, and discussions of sin among the men. The images peak as the kids are packed off on a church trip to California. Kids and church, church and kids.
Very, very slowly, the story unfolds. Young Christin (played by Ilah Davis in an unfortunate debut) vanishes into scummy California. Her distraught father flies down, and, unsatisfied by police efforts to find her, hires a sleezy private dick played by Peter Boyle. Back in Grand Rapids Scott wanders around looking sad. Even religion isn't fun anymore. Finally Boyle shows up and coyly presents Scott with a low-rent porn flick starring his daughter. Scott reacts to the screening in predictable stages of disbelief, grief and rage. So where is the girl? Still missing.
The pace picks up slightly as Scott leaves Michigan to search for his daughter. One might expect the urgency of the street to break through the tough, austere, Calvinist exterior of the man, but Scott slogs dully through whore houses, unmoved except by frustration.
Released from the constraints of his family and community, he still puts-on the same morose face, until he learns to hide even that. Somewhat inconsistently, Scott begins to play detective. From a solid, straightforward honest man, he becomes a wily man of the streets, able to manipulate and deceive others. He has help from a young prostitute (Season Hubley) he picks up as a partner (this is all platonic--Schrader couldn't deal with Scott's sexual drive so he hides it). Led by Nikky, Scott beats pimps and thugs to a pulp, who then graciously give him straight tips. Scott's quest becomes less urgent and more professional as it continues. The outraged moral stance of the Midwestern family man becomes more absurd and dismissable, but Schrader peps it up with an occassional religious talk or a shot of Scott's sleepless nights.
When Schrader wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver, he managed to create a tension between the hard core or 'new morality' and the religious ferocity of the old morality within the character of Travis Bickle. In Hardcore, Schrader relies on the obvious: Grand Rapids family life and California street life confront one another on the screen. His device is too simple, and the extreme images have no force. The director's lack of involvement with the film lowers it to the level of a porn film. Schrader uses a classic box-office formula--a little sex and scandal combined with middle-class moral outrage--to make a cheap show with a tantalizing title that offends no one because it goes nowhere. For his next trick, Schrader has signed John Travolta to play in American Gigolo.