Paul Schrader continues to type himself as an unusually serious young filmmaker whose work suffers from serious dramatic disabilities. Schrader's second feature, "Hardocre," is more confidently made than his first, "Blue Collar," but it slips into a similar category: absorbing but unsatisfying.
The prototype for "Hardcore," now at area theaters, is evidently John Ford's "The Searchers," a classic 1956 Western in which John Wayne gave one of his most imposing performances. Ethan Edwards, the fanatic Westerner played by Wayne, spends years tracking down his niece, captured as a child by marauding Comanches who killed her parents, in order to restore her to the family and community.
George C. Scott brings complete sincerity and considerable authority to the equivalent role in "Hardcore": Jake VanDorn, a righteous Midwestern businessman whose 14-year-old daughter, Kristen vanishes while attending a church youth convention in Los Angeles. Weeks later a private detective named Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) picks up an appalling lead: the girl has appeared in a cheap, silent, one-reel pornographic film, looking dazed as she submits to the obscene advances of two young men.
Angered and frustrated by what he considers Mast's dilatory sleuthing and loose morals, VanDorn takes over the search for Kristen. Infiltrating the L.A. porn milieu, he eventually establishes contacts that lead to the climactic discovery of Kristen in San Francisco, where she is keeping company with a satanic figure called Ratan, whom Schrader chooses to identify with extravagant melodramatic flourishes as a producer of supposedly authentic snuff films who likes to do the snuffing personally.
Ratan is more of a diabolus ex machina than a logical extension of the underworld Schrader depicts.He probably reflects Schrader's desperate need to resolve the plot, which becomes too diffuse to sustain urgency about VanDorn's ordeal and his daughter's fate. Typically, Schrader views the characters caught up in vicious livelihoods with sardonic humor or melancholy charity.
For example, Leonard Gaines, a former fight promoter, emerges as an unforgettable comic grotesque in the role of Bill Ramada, a feisty, ferrety porn film producer whose success has given him a complacently patriarchal self-importance, reflected in remarks like "I'm like a father to these girls, Jake" and in his sarcastic dominance of the aspiring undergraduates, who shoot his productions and run his errands.
The young women who supply the porn merchants with their indispensable commodity are epitomized by Nikki, a small-time hardcore actress and "parlor girl" who becomes VanDorn's key informant. Season Hubley endows this cynical, degraded yet fundamentally spunky girl with vitality and poignance. Nikki suggests a debauched version of the young Grace Kelly, and Hubley's performance is likely to be remembered as the most appealing aspect of the film.
As a rule the porn milieu recreated by Schrader is peopled with absurd or forlorn types. They may seem ignorant, avaricious, self-deceiving or pathetic, but they don't seem remarkably sinister or vicious. As a result, the exceedingly sinister specter of Ratan appears wildly overdrawn.
Kristen's disappearance is never adequately explained, although Schrader has given her a lame speech about her father disapproving of her friends and indicating a preference for the new acquaintances who "love" her.
VanDorn wretchedly admits that he never knew how to show his love and promises to mend his ways. This vow evidently appeases Kristen, who decides that she's daddy's girl after all.
This reconciliation just won't play. It violates too much of what we've been led to believe. For lack of better documentary evidence it's more plausible to imagine her as a victim of white slavery than a resentful or secretly perverse runaway.
Schrader and cinematographer Michael Chapman do a wonderful job of contrasting serene, wintry Grand Rapids, where the VanDorns live, with sleazy, sunny L.A. However, there's nothing in the Grand Rapids introduction to support Schrader's eventual explanation for Kristen.
I suspect Schrader suffers from a dim perception of father-daughter relationships and paternal anxieties. This deficiency is corrected to some extent by Scott's prowess and experience. Scott is no stranger to tormented patriarchs, having given an impressive performance as one of the greatest of them all, Abraham, in John Huston's "The Bible."
Jake VanDorn is a less formidable archetype. Nevertheless, when the exposition and the director don't conspire against him, Scott imposes a powerful image of abused dignity and rectitude, a stricken man bearing up under the pressure of dreadful shocks and uncertainties. The most instruc tive passage is Scott's reaction to the porn reel, a fine piece of acting undermined by Schrader's insistence on drawing out the character's agony.
Schrader wants us to respect VanDorn, and despite his conceptual failings, Scott contributes a performance that justifies the respect.