It's a quiet life for Grand Rapids businessman Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), and this Christmas he spends with his family: his sister's family and his teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis). Although strict Calvinist Jake's wife left him a while ago, he thinks he's happy enough and that his daughter is too, so has no qualms about allowing her to go on a church outing to Los Angeles, knowing she will be safe. But how wrong could he be? For after couple of days away, Jake receives a telephone call informing him that Kristen has gone missing...
The shadow of John Ford's The Searchers looms large over writer and director Paul Schrader's follow up to Blue Collar, Hardcore. While his previous film had studied the worst nightmare of the working classes, this time it was the middle classes who suffer the traumatic treatment when Jake is taken by the private detective he has hired to a porno theatre where a short is run for him. And there on the screen, to his horror, is his daughter, acting in a blue movie; it's a powerful scene, but it's merely replayed over and over again with different variations throughout the rest of the film.
Peter Boyle essays the detective role, the man VanDorn turns to when the police let him down, and he is in some ways the sleaziest aspect of the film, purporting to help anguished familes but capitalising on their worries to get himself some action from the porn actresses and prostitutes he is supposed to be investigating. However, it's Scott who steals the show, rendering the story believable even as it edges ever closer to silliness. His worry is palpable in every scene and he's surprisingly moving as he takes it upon himself to perform the search for Kristen.
What this entails is an abundance of shots of Scott wandering up and down the Los Angeles red light districts and popping into various dodgy establishments to quiz the staff there. Of course, he gets nowhere, but then the narrative gets daft as he decides to pose as a porno movie producer (disguising himself with a porn star moustache, appropriately) and interviewing would be stars until one who matches the description of the performers in his daughter's film appears. This sequence contains the only deliberate bit of humour (an overconfident black performer crying racism when he's rejected), as if to acknowledge the creeping absurdity.
Perhaps the major problem with Hardcore is that it rarely gets scummy enough to convince. It actually looks like a TV movie with nudity, a lot of nudity as Schrader - who was brought up a Calvinist - is obviously conflicted over the world he depicts and the relaxed boundaries he enjoys in mainstream cinema of the time. By the time VanDorn is joined by surrogate daughter Niki (Season Hubley), a prostitute who can connect him with the people who have adopted his real daughter into their lifestyle, we are given a few conversations about his faith, and it's clear he has been changed forever whether he finds Kristen or not, but then it's back to the thrill of the seedy underworld. Hardcore should have been more provocative - I don't mean sexually, it has enough of that, but morally. It should make you ponder instead of tut-tutting. Music by Jack Nitzsche.