Why Paul Schrader Is Wrong and Hardcore Is, in Fact, a Major Movie

Jim Hemphill makes the case that, despite what Schrader himself may say, one of the director's most personal films is also one of his best.

Paul Schrader’s Hardcore is one of the great American movies of the ’70s, a film that deserves to be as well known and talked about as the era’s benchmarks – Nashville, Taxi Driver (written, of course, by Schrader), The Last Picture Show, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, etc. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the fact that it isn’t held in higher regard; though it had its critical champions, like Roger Ebert, and held enough sway over Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker for him to virtually remake it as 8mm, it’s never mentioned among the classics of the period. It hasn’t gone through a proper reappraisal the way that Friedkin’s Sorcerer or Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate have; Pauline Kael’s negative assessment – influenced in no small part by her personal relationship with Schrader, which had turned sour when he turned his back on criticism to become a filmmaker – represented the conventional wisdom at the time of its release, and it hasn’t been challenged much since 1979.

It turns out even Paul Schrader doesn’t care much for Hardcore, which I learned from listening to his commentary track on Twilight Time’s exquisite new Blu-ray of the film. His audio narration is a riveting, often hilarious collection of regrets and criticisms, the latter of which are mostly aimed at his own technique (or lack thereof). Listening to it is a fascinating experience, particularly for someone like me who considers Hardcore to be a major work; it raises fundamental questions about how important intention is when it comes to evaluating art, and about how qualified an artist is to judge his or her own art. It’s all the more interesting because Schrader has always been one of the most articulate directors in the business – there’s no one who gives a better interview or lecture, and his recent series of articles in Film Comment on the history of technology in cinema is a significant piece of film scholarship. His arguments for why Hardcore is a failure are clear, logical, and convincing – and wrong.

For those readers unfamiliar with the movie, here’s a quick rundown of the plot: Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) is a pious Michigan businessman whose teenage daughter Kristen disappears on a church trip to California. Jake hires a private detective (Peter Boyle), who finds a porno film in which the underage girl appears, leading Jake to drop his life for several months to look for his daughter in Los Angeles. Posing as a porn producer, he infiltrates the sex industry, ultimately teaming up with a prostitute and adult film actress (Season Hubley) who becomes a sort of surrogate daughter – though we and he know that this good “Christian” will toss her out like yesterday’s garbage as soon as he reconnects with the real thing.

In a sense, the broad outlines of the story follow John Ford’s The Searchers, in which John Wayne spends years searching for his kidnapped niece, only to become so hardened by the journey that when he finally finds her he’s no longer capable of integration with home and family. In both The Searchers and Hardcore, parallels can be drawn between the hunter and the hunted: just as Wayne becomes every bit as brutal as the “savages” he’s pursuing, Schrader hints that Jake is as obsessively controlling of women as the pimp who has taken possession of his daughter – Kristen has traded in one manipulative father figure for another. (A tantalizing detail Schrader introduces but doesn’t belabor: the wife who Jake pretends is dead is actually alive and well on the East Coast.) And just like Wayne in The Searchers, Jake can’t really go home again – the superficially “happy” ending in which he finds his daughter and takes her out of the fleshpots is a ruse. How on earth can he and his daughter possibly recover from what they’ve seen and experienced?

The happy ending is one of many things with which Schrader expresses dissatisfaction on the Blu-ray commentary track; it was a studio-imposed alternative to his original climax, in which Jake discovered that his daughter had been killed in a car wreck completely unrelated to her adventures in porn. While that existential finale feels right in an intellectual, philosophical way – a brutal repudiation of Jake’s Calvinist sense of order and meaning – it’s hard to imagine it having the unsettling impact of the ending that exists. Since Schrader didn’t believe in the material, it’s directed with a strange lack of conviction that undermines any sense of true resolution or reconciliation – we’re left troubled by the multitude of questions that are inspired by the odd interaction between Jake and his daughter.

The open-endedness is exacerbated by the fact that the girl playing opposite Scott isn’t much of an actress – she was cast because she had the right look and was willing to get naked, but then had to deliver an actual performance when the studio-mandated changes gave her a weighty scene to finish off the picture. It’s yet another example of Schrader turning a limitation into a strength – even if he doesn’t agree with me – as the young woman’s awkward, blank quality adds layer upon layer of ambiguity to the characterization. Schrader complains on the commentary track that his writing at the time was a little too explicit and blunt, but this is a movie of rich nuance and complexity; even though certain themes and ideas are stated, they’re constantly challenged, deepened or undermined by other aspects of the filmmaking. Ilah Davis’ performance as Kristen is like a blank screen on which the viewer can project all kinds of motivations – the real mystery of the film isn’t where Kristen is, but why she ran away in the first place. And in spite of her rant at the end of the film in which she lashes out at her father for his cold oppressiveness, the mystery is never really solved – Davis’ delivery is unconvincing, and as a viewer we take what Schrader might see as mediocre acting for ambivalence on the part of the character.

This sort of thing goes on throughout Hardcore and permeates nearly every aspect of the filmmaking; the static compositions that Schrader blames on his underdeveloped visual sense add to the stifling sense of rigidity that characterizes Jake’s existence, and the bright lighting that the director now abhors makes the movie all the more disturbing and confrontational – we’re given no escape from the worlds it depicts. Both of those worlds – suffocating, conformist Grand Rapids, Michigan, and seedy, exploitative Los Angeles – are conveyed with a sense of visual detail and resonance that most directors today would sell their souls to achieve, and the new Blu-ray transfer allows one to appreciate just how elegant Schrader’s use of color is. There’s a great early scene demonstrating Jake’s passive-aggressive style of manipulation in which he complains to an underling about her use of a certain shade of blue; when, later in the film, Jake first tours the sexual underworld, he emerges from a club framed by a painting of two legs surrounded by that very same color.

The visual, verbal and thematic reflections and parallels accumulate throughout the film, building an astonishingly textured and layered cinematic universe every bit as vivid as those in the science fiction hits (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars) playing down the street from Jake’s hotel. Hardcore is about so many things, from the role of religion in daily life (several main characters, not just Jake, have almost comically specific beliefs), to the ways in which love and control are mistaken for one another, to the relationship between sex and commerce. And there are so many small but perfect moments of observation, like the one in which one of Jake’s family members shuts off a TV and proclaims that all the shows are made by people who couldn’t get along when they were in Michigan, so they went out to L.A. to produce junk to send back home.

That scene, like many of the early ones set in Grand Rapids, seems directly drawn from the director’s memories and childhood – again, something that he sees as a flaw. Schrader says that Hardcore (about his father) and Light of Day (about his mother) are two of his most personal films – and two of his worst. Yet to this outside observer it’s precisely the intimate engagement between filmmaker and subject that gives both films their power. Hardcore in particular has an intensity that is impossible to shake and every bit as powerful as that in The Searchers – or in Chinatown, another movie with which Hardcore has a lot in common. But does the fact that so much of the film’s impact and queasy ambivalence comes from so-called “mistakes” lessen its value or mean that I’m reaching to find complexity where Schrader merely sees a failure of clarity and intention? I really don’t think so, and I have to admit, as a filmmaker I found the experience of watching Schrader’s commentary track to be downright inspiring. If this haunting, provocative, conflicted and moving masterpiece can be the result of a guy who didn’t know what he was doing, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us!

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.