Playing a bit like Taxi Driver as filtered through writer/director Paul Schrader’s Calvinist upbringing and with a bit of Wender’s Paris, Texas thrown in for good measure, Schrader essentially updates, reworks and revises the journey he penned of Travis Bickle a few years earlier for George C. Scotts Jake VanDorn.
The beauty of Hardcore is that, while it doesn’t quite reach the same echelon as Scorsese’s direction, Schrader’s less technically efficient and ultimately more personal story still strikes a note of discord and warped familial love.
Beginning in a hyperbolically idealist Calvinist midwest town, Hardcore follows the plight of church-going, moral businessman VanDorn who’s daughter inexplicably goes missing while on a religious retreat. After seeing a stag film featuring his daughter and hiring a private detective named Andy Mast – a porn name if there ever was one – (Peter Boyle at his skeeziest) VanDorn descends into the world of west coast pornography and violence.
With some notable digs at UCLA (the young, enthusiastic pornography director who wears UCLA gear; the producer who excitedly announces that he ‘went to film school), Hardcore ultimately feels as grimy as the films some of its side characters create. There are several memorable interactions and set pieces, including a forlorn VanDorn bashing an aspiring “actor’s” head with a telephone, and a chase scene that literally rips through the walls of an underground sex dungeon, recalling, perhaps intentionally, Brian de Palma’s reflexivity and look at the behind-the-scenes of filmmaking (see Blow Up, et al).
In looking at Hardcore as a cousin of Taxi Driver, it’s not only the indelible main characters that stand out, but also the structure.
Where Taxi Driver begins with hate and ends with love, Hardcore nearly reverses that scenario. The bloody, bullet-riddled endings to get to a female in trouble are also eerily similar, though Bickle’s self-sacrifice feels downright joyful compared to VanDorn’s tooth-gnashing father. The middle of the two films finds similar downward spirals, just, as mentioned, stemming from different places. Where Bickle hates the sight of the city and strives to eradicate its blights, VanDorn embraces the city, becoming a part of its underworld (at least in disguise) and seeks only to remove his daughter from it. Otherwise, he’s content to let the city and all of its malfeasance be.
As might be expected, the cynical Schrader works in plenty of Calvinist digs, but its remarkable how he ultimately leaves VanDorn relatively unscathed, despite the overwhelming journey he puts his protagonist through. Throughout the film VanDorn really only commits three violent acts: 1) he hits the actor in order to obtain information about his daughter, 2) he hits the young prostitute Niki (Season Hubley) who is helping him, 3) he beats one of the men responsible for his daughter’s abuse. Otherwise, and in the end, he stays remarkably set in his religious ways, even going so far as to explain (nearly preaching) his beliefs Niki and how they fall in opposition to his.
Stubborn? Sure. Divorced? Yes. But in the end, VanDorn is dedicated father and true believer. We’re left with no reason to think that he won’t return to the midwest and attempt to resurrect his old life.
Below are images from Hardcore and Taxi Driver, respectively.
Granted this is an exceedingly small sample size, but Schrader does go to some pains to separate VanDorn from his world. Where Bickle is frequently dressed in colors that either mirror his cab or the world he lives in, even when VanDorn (as in the image below) tries to blend in with the California underworld, he’s always out of place – from a color scheme perspective as in below, to being relatively marginalized in the frame (pushed into a corner or caught between two legs) to the image above where the reflections are more eye-catching than his face as they hover over, and at times cover his searching eyes – the city enveloping him.