Hard Eight

“This is a very fucked up situation.”

The H-Bomb: A good hearted but dimwitted young man named John (John C. Reilly) has just been cleaned out in Vegas, trying to raise money to pay for his late mother’s funeral, when he’s approached by a stranger named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who offers to buy him a cup of coffee and a cigarette. After listening to his story, Sydney decides to take John under his wing and teach him how to “work” casinos– con them into comping free rooms and meals, while ideally making money gambling. For the next two years they keep this up, and during that time a father-son like relationship develops between them.

Then John meets Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a pretty young cocktail waitress who moonlights as… erm… a woman of negotiable virtue. Bonding over their shared lack of intelligence, John and Clementine fall hard and fast for each other, and without thinking it through too carefully, decide to get hitched. On their wedding night, John calls Sydney over to his motel room, where “a very fucked up situation” has arisen (no, I won’t say what). The fallout from this fucked up situation will test Sydney’s loyalty to John, and force him to confront demons from his own shady past.

If you sat down to watch “Hard Eight” knowing nothing about it, you would probably be surprised to learn that a film this polished and assured was written and directed by a first time filmmaker. You probably then wouldn’t be that surprised when you found out that the writer/director was none other than Paul Thomas Anderson, the auteur went on to make such lofty epics as “Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia”, and “There Will Be Blood”. Like those films, “Hard Eight” is a character driven drama, only there are fewer characters painted on a much smaller canvas. His later films are big and sprawling, this one is intimate and understated, but no less accomplished. In fact, I would say this is second only to “Magnolia“ as being my favorite P.T. Anderson picture.

Much like a Tarantino film, this is very much a dialogue heavy movie. Anderson allows the conversations to dictate the pace, with characters showing who they are and what they’re about through the seemingly casual and sometimes humorous things they say– love that bit where John gives Clementine a tutorial on his elaborate method of stealing pay-per-view movies from a hotel.

While Anderson’s words lacks the poetic punch of Quentin’s, he does have Tarantino’s talent for letting characters talk at length without boring the shit out of the audience. A key scene about halfway through the film, set in a single room, goes on for nearly twenty minutes, but manages to grab the audience’s attention and hold it tightly the entire time. Like I said in my “Inglourious Basterds” review nearly two years ago, it takes an exceptionally talented filmmaker with a hefty set of yarbles to make that fly, and Anderson does exactly that.

It‘s during this lengthy scene that the film makes a noticeable tonal shift, where again, much like with Tarantino, things turn dark and violent unexpectedly. It transitions into a film noir of sorts, and although this shift is abrupt, it doesn’t feel jarring. It doesn’t feel as though we’re suddenly in a different film. The characters have been set up and established, and now something is happening to them, and they have to deal with it. It’s here where the film really catches fire, and doesn’t let up until the finish.

Having directed Daniel Day Lewis to Oscar gold, and others to Oscar nominations, Anderson is without a doubt a true actor‘s director who brings great performances out of everyone he works with (Adam Sandler will NEVER top his turn in “Punch-Drunk Love“), and his debut is no exception. He makes Paltrow, who I normally cannot tolerate, somewhat tolerable- though I do wish he found someone else, as I truly can’t stand her. With the then little known Reilly, he brings out his natural goofy charm, making John, while a somewhat dumb character, impossible not to like or invest in. It’s easy to forget that before Reilly started slumming in Will Ferrell movies, he was a gifted dramatic actor.

With Samuel L. Jackson, as Jimmy, a bigmouth showboat who proves to be a real thorn in Sydney’s side late in the story, Anderson just has him do his Bad Motherfucka thing. He’s basically doing Jules from “Pulp Fiction”, only a lot sneakier and slimier. Things really come to life when he’s around, and his very presence makes the film all the more awesome. He truly is a bad motherfucka. Where’ve you been lately, Sam?

But, the best performance, undeniably, belongs to Philip Baker Hall. Anderson first discovered Hall years earlier in “Secret Honor” (my review of which you can find elsewhere in The Bin), and wrote the lead role specifically with him in mind. As Sydney (which is Anderson’s original and preferred title for the film), Hall is quietly intense and commanding, someone who is always in control of the situation at hand, even when he has a gun pointed in his face. His weathered face conveys a man with a long past, a past that, along with his motives, is shrouded in mystery, and Hall plays him flawlessly. Between this and his work in “Secret Honor”, I have no problem saying he is one of the most shamefully underrated actors to have ever lived.

As icing on the cake, Anderson also gives us a brief but memorable appearance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obnoxiously bombastic gambler who, like Sydney, likes to bet on the hard eight. It’s not hard to understand why he went on to bigger and better things, including three (soon to be four) more projects with Anderson.

Clocking in at a lean 90-something minutes, “Hard Eight” is coolly restrained, stylish, and about as impressive as a film debut can get. Had Anderson simply vanished into obscurity after this, he would still have this film to hold up and proudly call his own. But, as we all know, he didn’t– his true breakout, “Boogie Nights”, came out only a year later, and he has gone on to become one of our most important, and talented, filmmakers. For any fan of Anderson’s work who missed this one, and many have, it is very much worth the watch.

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