Hardcore begins in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Christmas day, where much of the congregation from the Dutch Reformation Church has gathered together in the house of Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott). Even allowing for the fact that it is a Christian holiday, we see that for these people religion permeates every aspect of their lives.
In one room, some men are discussing the unpardonable sin, rejection of the Holy Spirit. In that discussion, one man refers to the Pelagian heresy. Pelagius was a British monk who, on his visit to Rome just before the turn of the fifth century, was disturbed by the effect that the idea of predestination was having on people. It was thought that because of Adam’s original sin, everyone is born sinful. Only with the grace of God could a person be saved, but man is so corrupt that he cannot even ask for God’s grace unless he already has it. This is known as the doctrine of prevenient grace. Then, once one has God’s grace, one’s salvation is assured and one has no choice but to follow the path of righteousness, known as the doctrine of irresistible grace. And as God had ordained all things in advance, it was already determined before man was born whether he would receive God’s grace and be saved or not. Pelagius concluded that these doctrines were causing people to become fatalistic. If everyone is predestined to either be saved or damned, there seems to be little point in trying to be good.
According to St. Augustine of Hippo, a contemporary of Pelagius and a strong proponent of predestination, man did have free will, but without God’s grace, all he could do was choose one sin rather than another. Pelagius countered this by arguing that man’s free will was such that he could choose to be good all on his own, and that he could ask for God’s grace freely. Subsequent Pelagians continued this line of thought, maintaining that Adam’s sin was not passed on to subsequent generations, and that there were men without sin before the coming of Christ. Of course, this called into question the whole need for Christ’s crucifixion: if man was not all that sinful, there seemed to be no need for God to atone for man’s sins by suffering on the cross. As a result, this line of thinking came to be known as the Pelagian heresy.
With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin took predestination one step further. Whereas Augustine had maintained that man had free will, but that it was not worth much unless accompanied by the grace of God, Luther and Calvin rejected the idea of free will outright. There was no such thing. All had been ordained by God from eternity, including who would be saved and who would be damned. As Calvin said, everyone deserves damnation, and all salvation is unmerited, granted by God to a select few, not because they deserve it, but because it pleases God to do so. It is this theology that is the basis of the Dutch Reformation Church and which characterizes the thinking of the members of the congregation to which Jake belongs.
While the theological discussion among the men is going on in one room, in another room a bunch of kids are watching television with Joe VanDorn (Paul Marin), apparently Jake’s father. On the television, a bunch of men dressed in Santa Claus suits are dancing to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Joe gets disgusted, stands up and turns the set off, saying that the people who make shows like that are the kids who used to live in Grand Rapids and then left for California (a harbinger of what is to come). “I didn’t like them when they were here, and I don’t like them out there.” It seems like harmless enough entertainment, but Santa Claus and Christmas trees represent a secularized form of Christmas, not to mention the fact that a lot of Calvinists regard dancing as sinful.
Jake expresses concern about his teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) and her cousin Marsha DeJong (Karen Kruer) going to a Youth Calvinist Convention. He expresses his misgivings somewhat jokingly, because he knows they will be heavily chaperoned, but as it turns out, such concern was more warranted than he imagined.
The next day at his furniture factory, Jake talks to a woman he hired to come up with a sign for his business. He doesn’t quite like it because it is too “overpowering,” although if anything is overpowering, it is Jake’s personality. The woman says she has worked really hard to get the color just right, but she says she will change it, if that is what he wants. He says he would not have hired a display designer, if he did not trust her taste. But he keeps expressing misgivings until she agrees to change the sign the way he wants it. Once she consents to making the sign the way he prefers it, Jake says, “If you say so.” This recapitulates the whole business about God and free will discussed above. The display designer supposedly has free will in choosing the color for the sign, but the color that will end up being on the sign has been ordained by Jake.
Meanwhile, at the church where the Youth Calvinist Convention is being held, Marsha and Kristen are talking about boys. Marsha tells Kristen about a game of chicken, in which a boy will move a finger closer and closer to a girl’s breast until she says “Chicken,” at which point he stops. Laughably innocent to us, but bordering on scandalous for them. Then one of the counselors calls the all the teenagers into another room for a discussion group, at which point the counselor admonishes Marsha and Kristen to put their name tags back on, perhaps a sign of rebellion on their part.
Jake gets a call from Marsha that on a trip to an amusement park, Kristen disappeared. Jake and Marsha’s father Wes (Dick Sargent), Jake’s brother-in-law, fly out to California, where Marsha tells them that there was a boy there that Kristen met. At the police station, the detective suggests that Kristen may have run away. When Jake becomes angry, saying his daughter was not the type to run away, he gets his first of many doses of culture shock when the detective points out that her being a runaway is the best they can hope for, as he points to pictures of others girls who may never come back at all.
Jake decides to hire a private detective, Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), whose hardboiled, irreligious talk disturbs Jake, even though he realizes Mast is the kind of guy he needs to help find his daughter. Mast apologizes for offending Jake’s religious beliefs, noting that he is a practitioner of Mind Science himself, as if that is supposed to be reassuring. Mast tells Jake and Wes to go back home and says he will call them when he knows something.
Several weeks later, Wes tells Jake that we can’t always understand the Lord’s ways, that the Lord his testing him, that he has to have faith. This is an irritating trait that some people have, advising others about the ways of God when they are trying to cope with a misfortune, but considering the community in which they live, it is not surprising. In any event, Jake expresses his contempt for the remark about having faith. As is often the case, it is easy to talk about God’s ways and having faith as long as the bad stuff is happening to others. But now that something bad may have happened to his daughter, he begins to have doubts.
Mast turns up in Grand Rapids with an 8mm hardcore movie, which he shows to Jake in a “stall” theater that he has use of for an hour. Today, Jake would be told which adult website to look at, but back in the 1970s, when this movie was made, before cable, video cassette recorders, and the internet, most pornographic movies were seen in adult movie theaters or in adult bookstores with private stalls. The movie shows two men having sex with Kristen. Mast promises he will find her, and he heads back to California.
Jake gets tired of just waiting around, so he drives out to California and surprises Mast while “doing research” (slipping the panties off a porn star). Jake becomes so angry, he runs Mast out of his own apartment, and then goes through some of the evidence that Mast has accumulated (pictures, names, addresses) and decides to see if he can find his daughter himself.
The structure of this movie from this point is like that in Dante’s Inferno, where Jake gradually descends into the sex trade, at first by looking at the street prostitutes and advertisements, then by pretending to be a customer in an adult book store where he looks at the various adult novelties and magazines. He does fine as long as people think he just wants sex, but as soon as he starts asking questions, trying to find out if anyone has seen his daughter, he runs into trouble, at one point being bounced from a whorehouse.
Since that gets him nowhere, he decides he will do better pretending to be a producer of pornographic movies, which will allow him to meet a lot of people in that business. He goes to see Mr. Ramada (Leonard Gaines), a movie producer whose name Jake got from Mast. Ramada gives Jake some advice. “Start small. Start with the kiddie porn.” Well, that makes sense. Children are small, after all. Ramada is serious, but clearly Paul Schrader, the writer and director of this movie, is making a sick joke, although one with a purpose. I said that this movie has the structure of Dante’s Inferno, where we encounter increasingly worse aspects of the sex trade as the movie proceeds. Child pornography is the worst form of pornography, belonging in what would correspond to the lowest circle of Hell. But Ramada makes it sound as if child pornography corresponds to Limbo, where one finds the unbaptized infants.
The reason Schrader dismissed child pornography in this manner was to get it out of the way. He wanted snuff films to be the worst form of pornography in his movie, especially since it would directly threaten Kristen. Technically, the movie with Kristen would today be counted as child pornography, because she is a minor. But what Ramada is referring to, of course, is prepubescent children, which is vastly worse.
Jake does not take the advice about kiddie porn, of course, but he does have some success posing as a producer of smut. In pretending to interview “actors” for a film, one of the men he saw in the movie with Kristen finally shows up. When Jake asks him where he can find the girl he was in the movie with, the guy says she abused him in the making of that movie and that he never wants to work with “that bitch” again. Jake becomes angry and beats the porn star until he gets some information out of him, which leads him to Niki (Season Hubley), who will become his guide into the lower regions of the sex trade, much in the way Virgil was a guide for Dante. Virgil was a virtuous pagan. Niki is also a pagan of sorts, referring to herself as a Venusian, as in Venus, the goddess of love, but as she is a porn star and a prostitute, she does fall a little short in the virtue department. Anyway, she agrees to help Jake find Kristen, for money, of course.
Niki is perceptive. She quickly figures out that Jake is not a producer. He tells her he is a detective, but she sees through that too. He finally tells her that he is Kristen’s father and that he is a widower, but later she asks him point blank, “Your wife’s not dead, is she?” to which he admits his wife left him. She is clearly thinking it was for the same reason that his daughter ran away.
In addition to being smart, Niki is likable. In fact, we begin at this point to compare her to Jake’s daughter, who is a big nothing. Kristen is so docile and passive that it would be easy to indoctrinate her into a religion, and then just as easy for someone to come along and talk her into running away. We feel sorry for Kristen, who cannot help being what she is (there is no free will, after all), but we would much rather spend time with Niki.
She becomes curious about Jake’s beliefs, and he tells her they can be summed up by the acronym “TULIP,” which covers some of the things discussed above. “T” stands for “total depravity,” which is the doctrine of original sin, that man is incapable of good. “U” stands for “unconditional election, which is the belief that God has chosen a certain number of elect from the beginning of time. “L” stands for “limited atonement,” which means only the elect will go to Heaven. “I” stands for “irresistible grace,” meaning grace cannot be resisted. And “P” stands for the “perseverance of the saints,” by which is meant that you cannot fall from grace once you have it.
Niki helps Jake look for Tod (Gary Graham), the other guy in the film with Kristen. She learns that Tod has been associating with Ratan (Marc Alaimo), and she becomes visibly shaken, saying, “He’s into pain.” Of course, the name “Ratan” is only one letter removed from “Satan,” which is appropriate, since he is the most evil man in the entire sex trade. Mast, who in the meantime has been secretly rehired by Wes, catches up with Jake. When asked, Mast tells him that Ratan is the kind of man who can supply child whores and sex slaves, and who can have people raped or killed while the cameras are rolling. Niki sets up an appointment for Jake to meet Tod in an adult bookstore, where Jake says he wants to see one of Ratan’s most recent films, thinking that Kristen may be in it. It turns out she is not, which is fortunate, because what starts out to be a phony bondage flick turns into a snuff film in which a man and a woman are murdered by Ratan with a knife. By the time the movie is over, Tod has disappeared.
Just as we compared Niki with Kristen, Niki begins to think of herself as Jake’s daughter, telling Mast that Jake will take care of her, get her out of the sex trade. Mast ridicules the idea. When Jake returns, he demands that Niki tell him where he can find Tod. She is afraid to talk, saying she is afraid Jake will desert her. He slaps her and threatens to beat her with his fists until she tells him. Then he kisses her on the forehead and promises he won’t forget her.
Jake catches up with Tod at his bondage business and beats him until he tells Jake where Ratan is. When Jake finds Ratan in a strip joint, Kristen is with him. Ratan slashes Jake with his knife and runs out. Mast had followed Jake, and shoots Ratan, killing him. Kristen is hostile to Jake at first. Her rejection of their way of life in Grand Rapids is like the rejection of the Holy Spirit, which is the unpardonable sin. But the elect can never fall from grace, and Jake makes excuses for her, saying they forced her. Kristen asserts that she left of her own free will. But after Jake admits his failures, they reconcile. After helping his daughter into the police car (they need her as a witness), he turns and sees Niki. As he fumbles with his words, she realizes that Mast was right, that Jake has no more need for her. When Jake turns to Mast, asking him if there is something that can be done for Niki, if money would help, Mast tells him to go home, that he does not belong there.
In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary makes the following observation in reviewing this movie:
By the time Scott [Jake] saves his daughter from the pimp who controls her, he believes he has learned to be a good father to her—but his sudden rejection of Hubley [Niki], as being unworthy to be his daughter’s adopted sister, shows he is a hypocrite. … [The] ending is not very satisfying because the girl you care about gets the shaft while the other gets salvation.
Peary is right as far as how we feel about the ending, but the ending is appropriate nevertheless. Kristen is like one of the elect in Calvinism, one who has received God’s unmerited grace, while Niki is like one of the damned, whose exclusion from being one of God’s chosen strikes us as not only unfair, but also heartless.