Violence, Pornography, and Paul Schrader’s Search for Morality
Editor’s Note: Spoilers for several movies follow.
In the 1970s, New York and Los Angeles were disgusting places, if Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979) are to be trusted. Paul Schrader’s landscapes of urban decay—he wrote Taxi Driver and wrote and directed Hardcore—are mainly characterized by one thing: sex. Hookers, pimps, and porn theaters dominate the streets; every woman is a potential prostitute, every man a potential john. The films concern themselves with how a person of morals can survive immersed in such a world.
Hardcore, while not quite a masterpiece, provides an interesting framework for grappling with Schrader’s portrayals of perversity. The film follows Jake Van Dorn—played by George C. Scott and modeled after Schrader’s father—a businessman and God-fearing Calvinist whose greatest joy is attending church on Sunday. Jake’s idyllic suburban life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, gets upended when his fourteen-year-old daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis), disappears on a church trip to LA. After weeks of searching, Jake’s private investigator, Andy Mast (portrayed with sleazy charisma by Peter Boyle), finds her—in a low-budget porno film. Jake flies to California to search for his daughter, diving headfirst into the seedy world of sex work.
Jake goes door-to-door with stills from Kristen’s skin flick, a perverse missionary asking girls in brothels if they have heard any good news for him. Although LA’s underbelly clearly repulses Jake, he slips into an easy routine, quickly acclimating to being surrounded by so much flesh, so many people trying to sell themselves to him. Realizing that the cathouses aren’t the right places to look, he begins posing as a porn producer, hoping somebody in that part of the sex industry will have some information about his daughter. He hangs around several porn shoots, watching with a look of bland interest. How much of this is part of the producer act, and how much is he truly desensitized and at least mildly interested in the mechanics of creating pornography? How does this devout Calvinist accept what he sees happening directly in front of him?
Setting his sights on the two men that appear in the film with Kristen, Jake puts out a casting call. We next see him in his motel room, having traded his conservative suit for a tie-dye shirt and sporting a shaggy haircut and thick mustache. A stream of men show up to audition, dropping their pants to display their “qualifications.” Jake seems to fully embody the scuzzy underworld he so despises. How much time has passed since the previous scene? A day? Several months? Is this now who Jake really is? We don’t know for sure until, frustrated, he pulls off his wig, revealing that it has been almost no time at all, and under the get-up he’s still the stuffy, fish-out-of-water Midwesterner he was at the beginning.
Finally, one last man enters: Jism Jim, one of Kristen’s costars. Jake beats him to a pulp and learns that Kristen’s pimp is named Tod, and that Niki (Season Hubley), a girl who Jake had met on the porn sets, may know where he is. Jake then finds Niki, and the two of them travel across California in search of his daughter.
The ending, as Roger Ebert put it, “is a mess, a combination of cheap thrills, a chase, and a shoot-out.” Jake finds Tod in a bondage fetish-house. He attacks Tod, and the two of them tumble through the brothel’s paper-thin interior walls and eventually out into the hilly streets of San Francisco. Tod leads Jake to Kristen, who is now with Ratan, a notoriously dangerous pimp who “deals in pain.” Ratan is shot by Mast, now a reluctant accomplice on Jake’s mission. Kristen, clearly traumatized, worries that her father will hurt her and argues that she feels safer with Tod and Ratan, but eventually agrees to leave with Jake. They get into the back seat of a police cruiser, leaving Niki, Mast, and the world of sex work behind for good.
While the ending seems triumphant and fitting, is it as good as it seems? Can Jake and Kristen really go back to their Edenic lives in Grand Rapids? The long-term psychological impact of Kristen’s unimaginable trauma aside, what will they find back home? The world of middle-class normalcy now seems like an illusion, a false shelter from the filth and degradation of the outside world. Really, how far are they from the California underworld? As we learned early in the movie, even Grand Rapids has porno theaters. Is anywhere truly safe?
And anyway, maybe Kristen has good reason to be afraid of her father. Throughout the film, violence stands out as the only way he can successfully get information from people: he badly beats up Jism Jim to learn Tod’s name, nearly kills Tod to find Ratan, and even hits Niki when she hesitates telling him where to find Tod. Our good Christian may not be as good as he first appears.
Even though it can be hard to consider many of Schrader’s protagonists ‘good,’ they are always right.
As a filmmaker and screenwriter, Paul Schrader is extremely concerned with morality. Most of his films, made over the course of a career spanning nearly five decades, feature some variation on a man with strong morals adrift in a world that has lost all sense of right and wrong: Taxi Driver has Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle overwhelmed by the crime-ridden New York City of the mid-seventies; American Gigolo (1980) has Richard Gere’s Julian, a kindly prostitute who caters primarily to elderly women, trying to escape charges for a murder he didn’t commit; Light Sleeper (1992) has Willem Defoe’s John LeTour, a sensitive, aging cocaine dealer confronting his own complicity in the degeneracy of his clients; First Reformed (2017) has Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernest Toller, a pastor at a historic Dutch Reformed church struggling against the local evangelical megachurch’s complacency to climate change. Even though it can be hard to consider many of Schrader’s protagonists “good,” they are always right; they may not be good people, but their goals are always noble, and the audience always hopes for their success. For the viewer, the characters’ moral rightness justifies the violent acts they all inevitably commit. First Reformed is the exception here, since Toller never actually uses the suicide vest he dons for his church’s reconsecration—and yet, we anxiously watch as he straps it on and connects the detonator, horrified of what we’re about to see but sympathetic to the logic that brought us there. Hardcore, on the other hand, is less straightforward.
As viewers, we agree that Jake’s mission is noble and justified—few things are as abhorrent as child sex slavery, and Kristen must be rescued. But the film considers sex work as an industry with the same bland remove that Jake affects when watching porn shoots. Even Niki, who says she entered sex work when she was underage, asserts that she enjoys the work, and we (mostly) believe her. She frames it as something liberating, a way to escape a bad home life and make good money. Even though she craves a father figure like Jake, she doesn’t really seem like she wants to quit sex work. And although Jake mentions helping her leave that lifestyle behind, he doesn’t follow through. As soon as he reunites with his daughter, he abandons Niki, shedding her as just another part of the sinful West Coast sex market.
And so, what of our good Christian man, who can so easily adapt to being surrounded by the sex trade, who repeatedly turns to violence, and who leaves Niki to languish in what he sees as hell on earth? Although saving Kristen may justify Jake’s callousness and brutality, I find it hard to cheer for his actions. Jake has an entirely one-dimensional idea of morality: Anything that helps rescue his daughter is good, everything else is bad. Yet when he leaves Niki behind, it reveals how flimsy this ethos is. Why save one life when you could easily save two? How can this be rationalized?
Taxi Driver also takes an ambivalent stance on sex work and presents an equally complicated protagonist. Outwardly, Travis abhors the exploitation of women by the sex trade, seeing this as the main cause of New York’s decay. And yet, he frequents Midtown porn theaters—the film has no fewer than three scenes of him eagerly visiting them. The first one is hilarious: he tries to flirt with the woman working the concession stand and gets flatly rejected, still purchasing an absurd number of snacks from her. The second time he goes, he brings a date, played by the stunning Cybill Shepherd. She is, of course, horrified, and runs off after less than a minute. The third time, he’s alone again, alternately half-covering his eyes and making shooting gestures at the screen. Travis never appears to be titillated by what happens in the films—at no point does he masturbate, or seem like he’s going to—but he also doesn’t seem as repulsed as one would expect.
Travis sees himself as a vigilante, a guardian angel for a city that desperately needs one. He rails against New York’s decay, repeatedly talking about how somebody needs to “clean up” the city, hoping for a metaphorical rain that will “wash [the] scum off the streets.” In the end, he kills a couple pimps and saves Iris (Jodie Foster), an underage prostitute like Kristen in Hardcore. The film’s dreamlike denouement shows Travis hailed as a hero and Iris safe with her parents. But in terms of cleaning up the city, what exactly has Travis done? Just like Jake, he saves one child and rids the city of a couple of pimps—which certainly counts for something—but it’s clear that this doesn’t even make a dent in the ambient degradation. The victorious ending rings hollow; Travis is not the city’s savior—he’s just a guy who killed some pimps. Like in Hardcore, the protagonist’s actions undercut the perspective on the sex industry presented by the dialogue.
The most difficult quandary that Hardcore and Taxi Driver force us to face is one that makes me uncomfortable to entertain, yet is central to both films: What if these girls genuinely do not need to be saved? They’re underage sex workers, but that doesn’t automatically make them helpless victims. In Taxi Driver, Iris is adamant that she doesn’t feel exploited by Sport, her pimp. She admits that Sport often gives her drugs and that she has considered running away to a commune. But she seems at the very least complicit in her captivity. She’s a child, yes, but she doesn’t think of her exploitation as a possibility until Travis brings it up. She doesn’t view sex work as a lifelong occupation, but rather as a job that will allow her to save some money; she feels she can stop at any time. Similarly, in Hardcore, Niki insists that she doesn’t mind her work, even though she seems eager to run away with Jake. She also does not feel exploited, and insists that a “straight” life like the one Jake imagines for her wouldn’t suit her. Like Iris, Niki plans to only do sex work until she saves up some money, enough to travel to Europe in Niki’s case.
The most disturbing iteration of this comes when Jake finally finds Kristen and she resists leaving with him, equal parts afraid of what he may do to her and insistent that she prefers her new life. Of course, these girls have all suffered unspeakable abuse by perverse, exploitative men, and their complacency may be a form of Stockholm syndrome, a deliberately cultivated affection for their abusers. But their agency cannot be altogether discounted. While unimaginable to the films’ heroes, the idea that these girls may have knowingly ended up in these situations does not seem unimaginable to Schrader.
Both these films being made in the ’70s, this may be in part a manifestation of the rhetoric of sexual liberation so prevalent at the time. The girls in these movies are, in a way, forward thinking, free from historically oppressive sexual mores. As Niki explains to Jake, “I think sex is so unimportant I don’t care who I do it with.” Jake and Travis, then, have a backward, puritanical idea about sex. In believing that they need to rescue these girls, they strip them of their sexual agency, casting them as damsels in distress when they may truly need no saving. Who are they to say how these girls should express their own sexuality? Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to argue that Iris and Kristen would have been better off staying with their pimps, but the films do force us to ask the question.
Notably, sex is largely absent from Light Sleeper and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), two later Schrader films that concern themselves with New York City’s decay. Instead, drugs are the looming menace—cocaine in the former and heroin in the latter. I see two main factors at play here: as the VHS player became more widespread, people could watch porn in the comfort of their own home rather than needing to go to a theater, which, combined with the city’s efforts to rehabilitate the notorious strip of Forty-Second Street known as The Deuce, corresponded to a drop in prostitutes overtly soliciting customers; and the AIDS epidemic, which made sex a potentially life-threatening activity and permanently altered people’s views on promiscuity.
I find that the endings of Paul Schrader’s movies tend to be their worst parts. They often have that feeling of unreality that I described above, usually several rosy scenes where the bad guys are dead and the good guys get to revel in being heroes. American Gigolo, Patty Hearst (1988), and Light Sleeper all end with some variation on a prison sequence, where the protagonists have all been arrested for their violent acts, yet they take comfort in knowing that what they did was justified, and—once released from jail—they can live out the rest of their lives having been spiritually cleansed by the experience. The sequences borrow heavily from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), a favorite of Schrader’s. As in Pickpocket, American Gigolo and Light Sleeper both have the protagonist’s love interest visit them in prison and vow to stand by them as the pair finally understands the depth of their feeling for each other. First Reformed takes a slightly different approach, instead having a pregnant woman named Mary, whose husband’s recent suicide inspired Toller’s environmentalism, burst into Toller’s home as he’s about to kill himself; they then kiss passionately as the camera revolves around them and a solemn, one-voice hymn plays. All of these endings somehow fall flat, seeming like cop-outs that smooth over the film’s moral ambiguity and destroy the elements of reality that effectively ground their earlier parts. The protagonists are right, and their own satisfaction and/or the love of a woman proves this.
Perhaps the structure of these endings may be explained by Schrader’s Calvinist upbringing. As Jake tells it in Hardcore, Calvinists believe that “all men, through original sin, are totally evil and incapable of good.” And yet, “God has chosen a certain number of people to be saved—the Elect—and He has chosen them from the beginning of time.” Everyone else—the Preterite—are damned since before their births, condemned to live sinful, squalid lives and suffer eternal punishment. Schrader’s movies take place in the dismal world of the Preterite, where sex, drugs, and violence dominate. His heroes, all of whom see the world’s baseness and fight against it, could be seen as the Elect, those whose souls God has already marked for salvation. The long denouements, then, show confirmation of this. After the protagonists’ confrontations with evil, we see them basking in a beatific glow, secure in the Calvinistic equivalent of nirvana. They have fought demons and emerged victorious; they are the Elect.
Hardcore doesn’t have this type of ending. Schrader doesn’t tack a light finale onto the burst of over-the-top, orgiastic violence that concludes the film. Instead, he lets the viewer sit with the mix of satisfaction and repulsion that the scene produces, the moral ambiguity of dead pimps and uncaring Christians. We can’t be sure whether or not Jake is one of the Elect. Schrader doesn’t try to provide answers, only questions to wrestle with after the credits roll.