It centers around the disappearance of Kristen Van Dorn (Ilah Davis), the teenage daughter of Michigan businessman, Jake Van Dorn (Scott). When evidence emerges that Kristen is now working in California's pornography industry, Jake is horrified. Unable to rely on the slow pace of the investigation, Jake resolves to bring Kristen back himself. His attempt to trace her whereabouts in California's pornographic underworld exposes him to a previously hidden subculture that strains his religious convictions and outlook on life.
- Author Avatar: In an early scene, the adults of the Van Dorn family hold a theological discussion at the dinner table while a little boy listens solemnly. Schrader, who grew up in a Calvinist family in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has said that he intended the little boy to be his own past self.
- Bittersweet Ending: There is hope that Jake and his daughter Kristen will reconcile. However, Niki, the porn star and prostitute who helped Jake find Kristen and bonded with him in the process, rejects him and returns to life in the sex industry because it's all she knows.
- Black Is Bigger in Bed: The black porn star Jake turns away from his phony production does a lot of boasting about well-endowed he is.
- Broken Tears: Jake, on two occasions. The first is when he is shown the pornographic film starring Kristen. The second occurs during his reunion with Kristen, when she reveals that she ran away because she felt he never cared about her.
- Brain Bleach: This is what happens to Jake when he is shown the video of his daughter acting in a pornographic film.Jake: Turn it off. Turn it off. [Screaming] TURN IT OFF. [Begging] Turn it off, please..."
- Calling the Old Man Out: Kristen accuses Jake of never having loved her and of having constantly disapproved of her choices.
- Control Freak: Early on in the film, Jake is shown persuading one of his employees to accept his preference for an advertising colour scheme. It reveals just how controlling he is. It is implied that the reason Jake's wife and then daughter left him is that he was extremely repressive and judgmental, without being actually emotionally abusive.
- Dreaming of a White Christmas: The opening of the film in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
- Egocentrically Religious: Zig-Zagged with Jake. While Jake believes that, as a practicing Calvinist, he is one of those predestined to be saved by God, his behavior with other people doesn't suggest that he looks down upon them. The only people he much holds in contempt are some of the people in the sex industry who behave particularly vulgar in his presence.
- Emotionally Tongue-Tied: Jake. It contributed to his wife and daughter's perception that he was unloving. However, as Jake admits at the end:Jake: I do love you. I just never knew how to show you. It's very difficult for me - not being able to talk. I'll try. It's just my damnable pride.
- Fan Disservice: Most of the scenes are rife with explicit material but the purpose is to show the ubiquity of sex as a "product" for consumption in the adult industry. The viewer, like Jake, may initially be shocked by the crassness, but will soon be jaded to these settings.
- The Fundamentalist: Jake is a strict Calvinist who doesn't drink, smoke, gamble and is sexually conservative all around, making him even stricter than his likewise straight-laced relatives (shown smoking at the film's opening Christmas gathering at his house). The film rather deconstructs the negative stereotypes of this kind of character as it invites us to sympathize with him as he does some soul-searching regarding his religious beliefs while dealing with prostitutes and pornographers. The ending defies this trope altogether: while he doesn't approve of any of these occupations any more than he did before, we see how much he genuinely loves his daughter as he's pleading with her to return to him, even though he now realizes she chose to be in the pornography industry rather than being coerced into it.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Niki initially agrees to help Jake find Kristen only for the money. But once she hears that he is neither a pornographic film producer, nor a private detective, but a father looking for his daughter, she genuinely begins to sympathize with him.
- I Am Not Pretty: Kristen claims that she wasn't "pretty or good enough" to be Jake's ideal daughter.
- Inelegant Blubbering: One of the most iconic cinematic examples, wherein Jake breaks down sobbing while watching the porn movie starring his daughter.
- Leave Me Alone!: Invoked and then averted. On their reunion, Kristen asks Jake to leave her alone in her newfound world. Jake asks if she really wishes it, at which point Kristen relents.
- Meaningful Name: Van Dorn means "of the thorn" in Dutch, which was a deliberate reference to the Crucifixion on Schrader's part.
- Missing Mom: Mrs. Van Dorn. She isn't dead, but at least separated from Jake. Kristen uses her name, Joanne, as her porn name.
- Mistaken for Racist: Jake while pretending to a porn producer is accused of bigotry when he turns away the black porn star.
- Not Distracted by the Sexy: Jake, although Niki and other sex workers do their best to distract him.
- Not So Different: Sex-worker Niki and Calvinist Jake hold views that occasionally sound quite similar.
Jake: [speaking about Calvinist doctrines] I'll admit, it's a little confusing when you look at it from the outside. You have to try to look at it from inside.Niki: Well, if you look at anything from the inside, it makes sense. I mean, you should hear perverts talk. A guy once almost had me convinced to let his German shepherd screw me.Jake: It's not quite the same thing.
- One example:
Jake: You and I, Niki, have very different ideas about sex....Niki: How important do you think sex is?Jake: Not very.Niki: We're just alike. You think sex is so unimportant you don't do it. I think sex is so unimportant I don't care who I do it with.
- Another example:
- Offstage Villainy: Ratan, the man with whom Kristen supposedly is, is attributed with organizing services that are so perverted that even mainstream sex workers are afraid of him. However, his "on-screen" villainy is confined to an appearance on a Snuff Film, and slashing at Jake with a knife (without severe consequences) before he is shot down.
- Overcrank: For some inexplicable reason, the action sequence in the climax is filmed in slow motion, completely out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the film.
- Papa Wolf: Deconstructed with Jake. His attempts to "protect" his daughter from the big bad world fail miserably, as she is initiated into the pornographic industry and there is nothing he can do to preserve her innocence. Moreover, it's what she chose.
- Parents Know Their Children: Averted. Jake thought he did.
- Porn Stache: Lots of these. Most notably, Jake wears a fake Porn Stache while pretending to be a producer who is interviewing actors for roles in his upcoming film.
- Reaction Shot: Jake's brain-bleached reaction to watching the footage of his daughter in a pornographic film has undergone memetic mutation and is regularly mashed up with artistic works that, in the opinion of the compilers, deserve the same reaction as Jake's. The results are videos such as this one.
- Roaring Rampage of Rescue: Jake embarks on one of these. He beats up one man, slaps a woman and breaks through the partitions of a building while chasing another man. All in slow motion.
- Sadist: Andy Mast, the private detective hired by Jake, has shades of this trait. For instance, he makes Jake watch the pornographic footage of his daughter a lot longer than is strictly necessary for identification, and only turns the projection off once Jake has collapsed in tears and is begging him to stop.Jake: You enjoy this, don't you, showing me this?Mast: I hate it.
- The '70s: The 1970s marks the era when the adult subculture began to spill out of its niche and infiltrate "mainstream" society more and more.
- Snuff Film: Jake has to look through one to see whether or not the victim in the video is his daughter. It isn't, thankfully.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Susan Raye's "Precious Memories" plays during the opening and closing credits. It serves to show how Jake's closed-off Calvin community carries on blissfully unaware of the nature and existence of the pornographic underworld. The Calvin community is something of an extreme metaphor for the members of mainstream society.
- Whole Plot Reference: Paul Schrader once again cribs the plot of The Searchers as he did with Taxi Driver.
- Would Not Hit a Girl: Averted. Jake slaps Niki to make her tell the address of a man he is tracking.