Hardcore Review

There's a subjective element attached to Paul Schrader's 1979 feature Hardcore, his second as director, that seems to invite enormous opportunity for division along various and varied lines. The film's protagonist, played by George C. Scott, is the audience's entry into the picture. He's established from the beginning as a man with religious convictions, someone who's inherently decent and committed and an integral part of his community. Schrader presents the character's trials and actions as things to empathise with rather than merely observe from a distance. The juxtaposition that the movie then explores - of a man deeply out of his element in terms of values, culturally, generationally and just about anything else one can imagine - is what makes it fascinating even beyond the surface-level, Searchers-like plot.

Opening during the snowy Christmastime in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Hardcore uses its first twenty minutes or so to patiently introduce Scott's Jake VanDorn, a God-fearing businessman, via the holiday get-together and typical interactions among friends and family. With his wife no longer in the picture, Jake spends time with his brother-in-law (played by Dick Sargent) while his daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) seems to mostly interact awkwardly with other teenagers. A church bus trip full of young Calvinists, which Kristen and her cousin both go on, that goes all the way to California is understood to be a big deal. The plot begins in earnest when her father realises Kristen didn't get on the bus to go back home.

Paul Schrader grew up in the Grand Rapids area and these initial scenes all come off as confident and assured in the depictions of this particular kind of midwestern milieu. They take time to give the viewer essential background on our protagonist. The later descent into hell means more knowing where he's previously been. Without these portions of the film, the character of Jake is simply a man looking for his daughter hundreds of miles away from his home. Their inclusion gives him depth and detail. Once Peter Boyle's private investigator takes Jake into the small porno theatre and shows him what's happened to Kristen the portrait of this broken father coalesces.

The shift to California makes Hollywood, with the help of cinematographer Michael Chapman, look just as seedy as New York did in Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote and Chapman shot. The two films have some obvious similarities, but Schrader and Martin Scorsese are vastly different types of directors. With strikingly contrasting emphases and tones - if not necessarily moods - the two movies seem more like cousins than siblings. Scott's character is focused only on finding his daughter and taking her back to Michigan, a narrative line akin to what John Wayne is tasked with doing in The Searchers. The search repulses him. He not only must interact with people who represent things he cannot stand but he also has to pretend to be one of them if he wants to have any chance of finding his daughter. Schrader is fairly clear on respecting Jake's religious beliefs rather than mocking or poking holes in them.

Visually, Hardcore carries a prototypical seventies aesthetic, even if it just barely slipped in during that decade. The movie exudes the gritty texture of New Hollywood. The Jack Nitzsche score is often thrilling in its choices, sometimes bringing to mind a horror film vibe.  Having an actor like Scott, whose age and appearance probably would have prevented him from being a leading man in any other era, furthers the unique feel of time and place now going on forty years since the film's release. In so many ways the world depicted here is a tremendously different one than our modern age - with the pornography element obviously having evolved and gained a different level of pervasiveness - but the gap that is shown between the views and lifestyles of one area of the country versus another has lost none of its relevancy.

Schrader is careful throughout to keep the viewer invested because of Jake's obsession, sometimes bordering on dangerous, rather than just lingering curiosity as to whether he'll be reunited with Kristen. What ultimately develops feels complicated, particularly in light of how Jake has approached the entire situation. The conservatism and religious values the character represents are so frequently marginalised on screen yet make for a fascinating contrast here. Again, credit to Schrader, only in his early thirties at the time and making what's still one of his best movies, for never shying away from presenting these people as multi-dimensional and flawed. There's little satisfaction in the ending but there's no way around that. Like Taxi Driver, it's not a movie you quickly shake off when it's over, for better or worse.


The Discs

Powerhouse's Indicator label has issued Hardcore on a Limited (to 3,000) Dual Format Edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD, as well as a handsomely-outfitted booklet. The discs are region-free.

Video quality is sharp and well-textured. Using Sony's 4K restoration from the original negative, the 1.85:1 aspect ratio image looks exceptional. There's light, visible grain that seems very much at home with the characteristically seventies aesthetic of the film. Colours, such as when red or green lighting is used heavily, appear true and striking. I believe there was one quick scratch I saw but otherwise no damage.

The audio is an English LPCM single-channel mono track. It reflects the standards of the era yet still presents dialogue and, particularly, Jack Nitzsche's musical contributions with clear, distinct precision. There was one short section where an echo persists for a few seconds, perhaps native to the original materials. On the whole, the track is clean and balanced. Subtitles, white in colour, are offered in English for the hearing impaired.

A selection of extra features that, as has been typical with Indicator releases, reflect care and distinction help to provide further insight into the film and its creators.

An audio recording of a 1993 on-stage interview Paul Schrader did at the National Film Theatre in London with Derek Malcolm serves as something of a commentary track. It runs over the first 85 minutes or so of the film despite, obviously, not synching with the action on screen. While Hardcore is not referenced even once here, Schrader is a delight to listen to as he discusses other projects, including a lengthy anecdote on his Mishima film as well as some brief talk about violence on screen and a hint about teaming with Nick Nolte for Affliction some four years before it actually came to fruition.

There's a fascinating piece entitled "Hardcore Nitzsche" (22:25) that's excerpted from an upcoming longer documentary called Stringman and includes interviews with, among others, William Friedkin, Milos Forman and Ry Cooder discussing the composer Jack Nitzsche.

A 2004 interview, "Shooting Hardcore" (9:06), with director of photography Michael Chapman doesn't find him overly impressed with the film - and it's not clear he ever actually watched it - but it's still interesting to hear Chapman recollect a few aspects of the filming. It does have a little identifying "Web of Stories" bug in the bottom right of the screen and is in 1.33:1.

An isolated score, borrowed from the Twilight Time edition of the movie, emphasises the Jack Nitzsche soundtrack minus the film's dialogue.

Also, there's an Image Gallery featuring on-set and promotional photography and the original theatrical trailer (1:21), which looks grainier than the film and takes full advantage of the weirder parts of the Jack Nitzsche score.

Inside the transparent case you'll find a thirty-two page booklet with an insightful new essay from Brad Stevens and a lengthy interview from Schrader done in 1979 just before shooting on Hardcore but nonetheless concerning this particular film. The cover sleeve is reversible, with the front being pretty much the same only minus the Indicator bar at the top and the UK "18" rating circle.


8 out of 10
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8 out of 10

Easily one of Paul Schrader's best films, Hardcore remains a fascinating descent into a certain kind of hell. Indicator knocks it out of the park with this Dual Format edition.



out of 10

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