With American movies trapped these days in the kingdom of cute, where every new script seems based on a page out of the Hollywood High yearbook, discriminating audiences have reason to be grateful for Paul Schrader. His movies—notably Taxi Driver, which he wrote, and Blue Collar, which he directed and cowrote—are not cute. They’re case histories of violence and obsession, seen from the inside. Every step into an urban nightscape, every frustrating new experience signals another descent into the circles of hell. Not many current movies make this descent, travel in these circles. So the promise of a new Paul Schrader film is like the first whiff of a good steak—blood rare, to be sureafter a diet of Twinkies.
In Hardcore, Schrader’s inferno is the West Coast porno underworld: Dante is a stern Michigan burgher named Jacob (George C. Scott) looking for his lost teen-age daughter. And Virgil is a seedy private detective (Peter Boyle) who sends Jake on a trip through massage parlors and topless bars, in the company of street kids who have tasted every sensation by the time they’re 12, and into the lair of a satanic Hispanic who deals in the final forbidden pleasure: death.
The story would seem a natural for Schrader: Taxi Driver goes to L.A., but with a protagonist who has the moral force to resist the city’s seductive venality, instead of surrendering to it and going criminally insane. Jake is a character out of the American mythology: the long strong man who tracks his prey into a spiritual wilderness, and emerges with body and soul intact. It’s a heroic subject; a great film could be made from it. In fact, one has: John Ford’s 1956 western, The Searchers, of which Hardcore is a kind of updated, unofficial but acknowledged remake. But the pictorial beauty of Ford’s film—or, for that matter, the voluptuous edginess of Martin Scorsese’s direction in Taxi Driver— is beyond Schrader at this stage of his
career. Hardcore is full of confrontation scenes between Jake and the porno world’s whores and hustlers that should spark an audience’s guilty pleasure. Instead, these scenes just lie there, waiting vainly to be whipped or massaged into life. Despite its subject, the movie is beyond austerity—it’s inert.
George C. Scott’s method of resuscitating his character is to slap it silly with theatrical mannerisms. Sit him down in a hotel room and tell him to look pensive, and he will suck in his lips until he practically swallows them. As Jake’s daughter, Ilah Davis has too little screen time to register much more than her eerie resemblance to another lost child of the ’70s, Patty Hearst. This quiet, obedient girl disappears 20 minutes into the film, and we see nothing of her until the end. Hardcore could have profited by crosscutting her journey with her father’s as a way of demonstrating the attractiveness of the milieu that repels Jake. And with Paul Schrader directing her fate, you can be sure of one thing: she might have fallen under some evil influences, but at least she would never wind up at Hollywood High. Richard Corliss
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