Hardcore (IMDB) is a 1979 crime drama film written and directed by Paul Schrader.
The plot is that Jake (George C. Scott), a mid-Western family man and devout Calvinist, searches through the sex work underground for his daughter after she disappears in Los Angeles, then turns up in a porn film.
Hardcore bears a strong resemblance to 8MM. Both are Orpheus narratives: a man descends into the underworld to find a lost loved one. It also taps into the American captivity narrative. It provides an interesting glimpse into the sex work underworld of Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Again, like 8MM, there’s no particular investigation of the people who work in the sex industry. (Somebody did do enough research to drop names like the Mitchell brothers.)
Journeys into the underworld usually have a guide figure, which in this case is sleazy private detective named Mast (Peter Boyle).
Mast to Jake: “There’s a lot of strange things happening in this world. Things you don’t know about in Grand Rapids. Things you don’t want to know about. Doors that shouldn’t be opened. Look, I’ll find her. But I can’t make any promises. I don’t know what she’ll be like when I find her. And when I find her, you may not even want her back.”
There’s also Niki (Season Hubley), a girl Jake meets at a peep show. The relationship between Jake, a devout Calvinist and middle-class business owner, and Niki, a poor sex worker and self-described “Venusian”, is the most interesting. Niki is the one who figures out that Jake has been lying about his wife being dead; Jake admits she actually left him and their daughter.
Late in the narrative, Jake learns that Kristen is in the company of a man known as Ratan, who allegedly appears in snuff films.
Mast: “You know, you can buy anything on this Earth. You can buy child whores, slaves, have people raped and killed. One of the men who supposedly arranges such things is called Ratan.”
Jake sits with a couple of other men in a darkened room with a film projector and a tape deck playing Spanish music. The film-within-a-film is not remotely believable as Ratan goes through the motions of bloodlessly knifing a man and a woman (wearing a bondage hood), without even trying to conceal his face.
Unsurprisingly, Ratan is coded as Latino, emphasizing his difference from even the white people of Los Angeles. This plays into old racist ideas that the true extremes of sexual depravity are found among non-white people, and emphasizes the captivity-narrative basis of this story.
Jake’s confrontation with Ratan’s associate, Tod, takes place in a San Francisco house of domination. Three women in the lobby introduce themselves as Faith, Hope and Charity. We also get glimpses of other rooms, including a guy just chilling in a straight jacket by himself.
There is an effective scene in which Jake chases Tod through the cardboard walls of the domination house. He finally beats the desired information out of Tod, which leads him to Ratan and Kristen.
When Jake finally gets to talk to Kristen, she tells him nobody made him do anything, and she wanted to leave Grand Rapids. She never felt good enough for him, and she drove her friends away. He admits he didn’t know how to show her love, as nobody showed him.
Hardcore sets up a contrast between the red light zones of California and the rather dreary Calvinist community of Grand Rapids, then destablizes it. Mast takes Jake to an adult theatre right in downtown Grand Rapids, where he shows him the 8mm film of Kristen in a threesome with two men. There’s a poster on the wall showing sexual positions, and the same poster later appears on the wall of an LA strip club. This is also just on the cusp of the porn-driven home video revolution and MTV. California is coming to Grand Rapids, whether it likes it or not.
The film uses BDSM in the same way as Tightrope, Kinjite, and 8MM, as the last or next-to-last circle of hell. It’s adjacent to pedophilia/ephebophilia, snuff, sex slavery, and the like. This is the worst case scenario, the paranoid fear that keeps men imagining the unimaginable depravity happening to their own daughters.
Hardcore, like Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, capitalizes on the anxieties of the white, middle-class, mid-western, Boomer men the lead actor represents. Jake beats the crap out a couple of male sex workers, and hits Niki. Mast, his surrogate, guns down Ratan on a busy street for no good reason. There are no legal repercussions for either of them. The film tells us next to nothing about what Kristen has been doing in California, why she started doing porn, or what her relationship with Ratan is like.
Hardcore was written and directed by Paul Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver (1976) and wrote and directed Cat People (1982), but there’s none of that ambiguity in this film. Season Hubley (Niki) also played Princess, the sex worker protagonist of Vice Squad (1982), who does some kink stuff. This was the only film role of Ilah Davis, who played Kristen.