Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
            — Proverbs 16:18

Paul Schrader studied to become a Christian Reformed Church minister. Then he discovered film and took up film criticism. While serving as a research fellow at the American Film Institute, Schrader began writing screenplays. His work so far includes The Yakuza (A Japanese style gangster film), Taxi Driver (a grim portrait of an alienated individual), Obsession (a psychological thriller), and Blue Collar (a realistic portrait of some disaffected workers who revolt against their condition). In these screenplays, the issue of sin, redemption, and grace are worked out indirectly in the dramatic action. Hardcore is Schrader's most overtly religious work to date and it deserves to be experienced by all serious moviegoers.

Grand Rapids, Michigan. A mid-America winter wonderland. Children on the hills sledding. Church roofs covered with a blanket of white. A cold nip in the air of the downtown streets. And inside Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) and his daughter Kristin (Ilah Davis) are celebrating Christmas with relatives and friends. A group of kids sit watching the TV in one room; in another some people are gathered round a piano singing Christmas carols. In the dining room, several men are having a theological argument about predestination. At dinner Jake is the family patriarch cutting the turkey and offering up a prayer for everyone present.

The next day he watches his daughter board a bus to Bellflower, California, for a Young Calvinist Convention. Then we travel to work with Jake. The head of Van Dorn Manufacturing Company, he is a take-charge executive who knows how to get people to do what he wants. But then a call comes from the conference knocks him for a loss. Kristin has vanished. Jake flies to Los Angeles, beginning a journey into hell which will change his life.

Pride like a magnet, constantly points to one object, self; but unlike the magnet, it has no attractive pole, but at all points repels.
            — Charles Caleb Colton

When the police can't help him locate his runaway daughter, Jake hires Andy Mast (Peter Boyle), a private detective whose search leads to Santa Monica Boulevard, a mile-long run of sex book shops, massage parlors, strip joints, peep shows, and sexual encounter centers. Eventually Mast finds a clue to Kristin's whereabouts. She is shown having sex with two boys in an 8mm peep-show movie. When the detective can get no further in the investigation, Van Dorn fires him and takes up the search himself. He poses as a porno film-maker in order to identify the boys in the movie with Kristin. Then he hires a young parlor girl named Niki (Season Hubley) to help him make his way through the porno world.

They are an odd pair — this staunchly religious businessman with his Protestant work ethic and Puritan morals being led through all sorts of sleazy spots by this streetwise, vulnerable girl who has been turning tricks since she was fifteen. Repeatedly, Niki tries to share with Jake the story of her life and get to know him better. But he is closed off — totally uninterested in her as a person, just using her to find Kristin.

At one point he says to Niki: "I'm a mystery to you. You can never understand a man like me — a man who believes in God, who doesn't pursue women, who believes in social order, and believes that at the end of his life he will be redeemed. You can't imagine someone who doesn't know what's going on in New York or Los Angeles, or what's happening on TV and in the movies, or who's on Johnny Carson!" But he's dead wrong. She does care in a sense and is willing to relate to him — needs to relate to him — on an I-thou basis.

And when it comes down to really understanding where they are both coming from, Niki is the perceptive one. She says "We are alike you know." He answers, "We are not" She notes: "You think so little of sex you never do it. I think so little of it I don't' care who I do it with." Afraid to see himself so clearly, Jake tries to repel her.

Self love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep yourself in perpetual safe-deposit
            — Frederick Buechner

With Niki's help and Mast tagging along behind, Jake manages to locate Kristin. He is alarmed to find that she is keeping company with a gangster who is known for making "snuff" films. Jake turns into a wild west hero, storming into his daughter's life to rescue her from evil. But his act of saving her also presents him with a startling revelation about himself. Kristin says she ran away because he never made her feel loved and respected as an individual. Jake has kept himself in perpetual safe-deposit even as he's done with Niki. Only when this self-righteous man confesses to the sin of pride and reaches out in genuine love to Kristin does she consent to return home.

Hardcore has been reviewed as a melodramatic private detective story. Some have interpreted it as a tirade against the rampant world of porn, which now reaches into every city in America. Others, including many of the people behind the production, see it as a warning — from the "hardcore of the old morality" to the "hardcore of the new," calling into question the limits of tolerance and the need for a reappraisal of the whole sex industry.

These are all valid ways to talk about Schrader's movie. But there is another important theme. Jake is the key, not because of his anti-porn crusade but because of the type of person he is> For those who want to look deeper, this gripping movie is nothing less than a vivid and convincing parable about the dangers of spiritual pride.