The Searcher: Paul Schrader’s Hardcore
Updated: Jan 6
As we look ahead to Paul Schrader's next film Master Gardener, we will be showing his sophomore directorial effort Hardcore at The Garden Cinema, Soho on October 10th.
Buy tickets here.
Paul Schrader’s path through life has been a strange one, taking him from a strict Calvinist upbringing in the Midwest, to multi-day coke binges in the front seat of Don Simpson's car, to posting on Facebook for an enraptured audience of terminally online cinephiles. In between, he’s directed some films, one of which is Hardcore.
Before he made the jump to directing, Schrader was first a critic, then a screenwriter. In his early days, screenplays for Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and a draft of Close Encounters for Spielberg (rejected for being too angsty), earned Schrader some industry clout. Despite his now extensive directing experience, Schrader is still best known for the films he wrote for Scorsese, and every poster and trailer for Schrader’s late-period work invariably features a reminder that Schrader wrote Taxi Driver.
In 1978, he stepped up to direct a screenplay by himself and his brother: Rust-Belt drama Blue Collar. In an ambitious gambit, he used some Hollywood finagling to convince Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto to join the film, leading all three to believe they would be playing the lead. The result was a bitter struggle for creative control, exacerbated by the three stars’ wildly different acting styles. Despite the arduous shoot triggering an on-set mental breakdown, Schrader persevered, and Blue Collar showed he had serious talent as a director.
A baptism of fire such as this was fitting considering his next film, Hardcore, would directly draw from Schrader’s Calvinist background. Schrader has spoken frankly about the grave religious fervour percolating in his boyhood home, with anecdotes straight out of Carrie: “My mother took my hand once and stabbed me with a needle. She said, "You know how that felt, when the needle hit your thumb? Well, hell is like that... all the time." Weirdly, Schrader’s mother appears in an early scene in Hardcore, although this was while filming under its original title, “Pilgrim”. Sometime later, Schrader asked his father what he thought of the film. His response: “I’m just glad your mother wasn’t alive to see it.”
Hardcore stars George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn, a Calvinist single dad living in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his teenage daughter Kristen. He puts her on a bus to a religious convention in California, only to learn she has gone missing during the trip. He hires a sleazy private eye (played by the great Peter Boyle), who finds an 8mm porn film called “Slave of Love”, in which Kristen can be seen having sex with two young men. Quickly growing impatient with the man heading up the investigation, Van Dorn decides to take matters into his own hands, diving headfirst into the moral decay of California’s underground.
This was again, a trying shoot, with a drunk, over-the-hill Scott taking umbrage with Schrader’s direction. The situation reached its nadir when Scott (deep into a bottle of rye) refused to leave his trailer and finish the film unless Schrader promised him he would never direct again. Schrader got down on his knees, assuring him he never would, and the aging star completed his work on Hardcore. Months later, a furious Scott confronted Schrader in a bar, having just read that he was set to helm American Gigolo. “What can I say, George? I lied.” Schrader was by now well-versed in Hollywood duplicity.
For Schrader acolytes, Hardcore is rife with autobiographical details. The opening titles feature the churches of the director’s childhood and the factory where he once worked. Van Dorn is inspired by his own father, who is rendered more sympathetically than his later incarnation in 1997’s Affliction, in which Schrader explores the abuse his brother suffered at their father’s hands. Crucially, Van Dorn’s alien presence in LA allows Schrader to examine his own feelings of estrangement and seduction in regard to Hollywood. Throughout Schrader’s work, there is a consistent struggle between his ingrained spiritual beliefs and the allure of hedonistic “other lives”. Hardcore and American Gigolo, like William Friedkin’s Cruising, toe the line between repulsion and fascination with their subjects.
Although the film is obviously condemning the exploitation of teenage girls, the proliferation of snuff films, and the many other baroque horrors we see in Hardcore, the libertine world of Hollywood maintains a seductive allure for the good Christian boy in Schrader. He has spoken openly about the freedom he felt dancing shirtless in LA gay bars and has opined with his signature gruff wistfulness about how the sexual revolution passed him by, lamenting that he missed the chance to thoroughly explore his latent bisexuality. These ideas would reoccur with more nuance in his later work, and Hardcore is perhaps more interesting in how it consistently aligns with the conservative mindset of its protagonist.
Hardcore uses the porn world as a stand-in for the legitimate entertainment industry and an early line from a cantankerous Grand Rapids citizen encapsulates the division between Main Street America and Hollywood: “Do you know who makes television? All the kids who couldn’t get along here go out to Hollywood and make TV and they send it back here. Well, I didn’t like it when they were here and I don’t like them now they’re out there.” Reflecting on this particular moment, Schrader elaborates: “That's what we all do, you know: misfits from small towns across America go out to Hollywood, make TV and movies and pump it back to our parents' homes and try and make them feel guilty.” The bitter irony at the heart of Hardcore is that the film is made by exactly these kinds of misfits, yet it propagates reactionary paranoia about city life, youth culture, and Hollywood.
Viewers might expect a moment in Hardcore where the devout Van Dorn is revealed to be a hypocrite, but no such moment comes. He is resolute in his mission, resourceful and capable. Humour (not Schrader’s comfort zone) is wrung from the absurdity of a Midwestern Christian dad going undercover in a toupee and porn ‘tache, but even in a comedic sequence where Van Dorn auditions wannabe studs in an attempt to find the other participants in “Slave of Love”, the joke is more on the other men than him, and it turns out to actually be a pretty good idea.
Hardcore also presents a narrative where vigilantism and violence are straightforward and effective strategies for meting out justice. To be clear, many great crime movies have fascistic politics, but it does seem a step back from the murky revisionism of Taxi Driver. In the film’s finale, as Van Dorn wrecks the lowlife he’s been hunting through the walls of the Dante-inspired BDSM dungeon, you might as well be watching Taken. There is a suggestion that Van Dorn’s rage is what destroyed his family in the first place, raising questions about just how heroic Van Dorn really is, but the resolution of Hardcore ultimately vindicates his methods and restores the status quo. Admittedly, the chances of the Van Dorns going back to normal after everything that's gone down are slim, but the daughter nevertheless willingly rejoins the father, and the pair leave the licentious world of California in the rearview. There is a challenge to Van Dorn’s blinkered worldview in the character of Niki (Susan Hubley), a seemingly free-spirited working girl who helps him find his daughter, but this is undone by the screenplay reducing her to another lost little girl searching for daddy in the wilderness.
Hardcore borrows heavily from John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers. The iconic Western stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, on a quest to rescue his niece, who has been abducted by the Comanche. Reworking The Searchers into a story of urban vigilante justice had been done before, notably in the Schrader-penned Taxi Driver. The black-hat/white-hat morality of classic Westerns is absent in the nihilistic squalor of Scorsese’s film, which instead emphasises the delusional reactionary fantasies of its protagonist. Schrader has been critical of the simple, adolescent depiction of good and evil in Hardcore, which is less interested in deconstructing American mythology than its predecessor. A decade later, German director Wim Wenders would also draw from The Searchers while exploring the concept of America through his own outsider perspective, one heavily influenced by exported genre cinema. The result, Paris, Texas, features a peep show sequence that seems to be in conversation with a similar moment in Hardcore.
It's worth noting the wry allusions to Star Wars in Hardcore (another connection to Paris, Texas, which includes the blockbuster’s iconography in the fabric of America’s contemporary mythology). The success of George Lucas’ space opera, coupled with the catastrophic releases of One from the Heart and Heaven’s Gate, essentially ended the era of auteurist American cinema in favour of the high-concept eighties. A shot in Hardcore of two strippers engaged in mock lightsabre combat is a funny image, but also succinctly captures the cynical, bandwagoning instincts of Hollywood. In the morally bankrupt world of LA, any opportunity to make a buck must be seized, and everything, including the body, is a commodity.
Hardcore is a seventies crime movie par excellence to the extent of being arguably a little derivative. The film’s ending, though not the one Schrader had originally intended, evokes both Taxi Driver and Chinatown, although more uplifting - thanks to notes from the studio. While it's reductive to characterise New Hollywood movies as solely the kinds of gritty urban dramas that Schrader cut his teeth on, Hardcore, with its bleak depiction of city life, neo-Western elements, and fusion of American and European arthouse influences, is not exactly an outlier.
Schrader is certainly unafraid to walk familiar ground or to borrow from filmmakers he admires. The ever-growing list of entries in his “man in a room” series, and his favoured reuse of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket ending, show an obsessive urge to return to pre-existing motifs and ideas. His next film after Hardcore, American Gigolo, built off the format he established in Taxi Driver, and he intermittently returns to this mold to check in with the state of America’s soul. Fans of Schrader, myself included, are happy to see him in this mode and understand it as a process of refinement rather than diminished inspiration. This year’s Master Gardener will see him back to it, just a year after the grim, formally inventive The Card Counter.
Schrader has all but disowned Hardcore, displeased with the moral dichotomy at its heart and the studio-mandated ending. This is unfortunate, seeing as it's one of the last great crime movies of the seventies, a disturbing neo-noir imbued with Schrader’s signature fixations. Hardcore sees Schrader start to laser in on what distinguishes his finest work - a willingness to expose his demons on screen, carried by bold formal choices. The years after Hardcore would see Schrader push his filmmaking into increasingly risky territory - the sexually explicit American Gigolo, the lurid, scarlet-soaked Cat People, and the expressionist Japanese-language biopic Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters. But it was Hardcore that paved the way, and it remains an unforgettable film in its own right.
Thanks to Emily Macrander, Harry Patte-Dobbs, and Joe MacDonald for their help with this piece.