HARD EIGHT Review
Filmed with his then burgeoning visual flair and penchant for punchy dialogue, HARD EIGHT makes for an impressive, if straightforward debut from director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson (or P.T. as his friends like me call him). While Mr. Anderson would go on to create a few genuine modern day classics, he cut his teeth on the simple tale of not so simple people intermingling with one another.
Working in part off a short film he made a few years earlier, Anderson reunited with that short’s star, Philip Baker Hall, to take a longer look at Hall’s character, Sydney. In the film’s beginning, Sydney, sharp dressed and aged like a fine wine crosses path with the down-on-his-luck, John (John C. Reilly) who has just lost all his money gambling in Las Vegas, in a desperate effort to cover his mother’s funeral costs. Sydney, for some inexplicable reason, decides to take John under his wing and soon, after Sydney teaches John how to swindle his way into a casino hotel room with only $50 in a mischievously vibrant sequence, the two become like father and son playing the tables and slot machines of the casinos that dot the Nevada landscape. Their cool-as-ice double act soon comes to a halt when the two get involved with the likes of the lovely and damaged Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the antagonistic casino security head Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a pair that threatens to tear apart the men’s bond through hidden secrets and violence.
From the first scene, one can see the natural talent and ear that Anderson has for dialogue, even when it dips into excessive vulgarity. Through his writing and through the strong performances from Hall, Reilly, Paltrow, and Jackson, with special acknowledgement to a random manic appearance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, HARD EIGHT successfully captures the trials of a group of troubled individuals who spend their nights amongst the smoke and neon of those seductive casino halls. Certainly, Hall makes for an intriguing lead playing his character as a cool-headed and soft spoken old vet of the casino games, like an outcast from The Rat Pack, who nonetheless has a lot more dangerous secrets and resentment hiding under his chill facade. Elsewhere, Reilly makes for a good fallible foil to Hall’s Sydney, successfully using his trademark “lovable dolt” charm to wring out a rather sad portrait of lost young man looking for love and paternal guidance with naive impulsiveness. While Paltrow and Jackson’s characters are a little less fleshed out, acting more as plot movers than full characters, the performers and Anderson imbue these chaotic individuals with moments of wrenching or deadly human flaws.
Be that as it may, Anderson’s first feature still zips with energy throughout. Surprisingly and emphatically, HARD EIGHT visually captures the highs and lows of a life surrounded by casinos and gambling thanks to Robert Elswit’s crisp cinematography. Furthermore, one can see the talent that Anderson has in regards to the way in which the camera captures his characters and their surroundings, utilizing flowing tracking shots and wide scene-setters that would later be perfected in future films. Despite the high skill displayed in his writing and eye for visuals, Anderson struggles to get a complete solid hold on his story which starts off as a simple, if fully realized, tale of two unlikely men forming an equally unlikely familial relationship but then soon becomes over-complicated as it abruptly shifts into a hard edged pseudo-thriller in the film’s final moments as complicated character backstories are revealed and thrown on the table. While Anderson more or less sticks the landing with his soft-tuned ending, the tragedy that arrives feels slightly unnecessary.
Despite that sizable quibble, Anderson and co. craft a genuinely involving tale of the lost souls of those neon strips. If anything, for a first time feature, HARD EIGHT proved early that Mr. Anderson was a sure bet as one of the premiere American directors working today.