Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson: Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight (1996)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Philip Baker Hall (Sydney), John C. Reilly (John), Gwyneth Paltrow (Clementine), Samuel L. Jackson (Jimmy), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Young Craps Player), Robert Ridgely (Keno Bar Manager), Melora Walters (Jimmy's Girl).

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight is an uncommonly subtle, quiet film – especially for a debut director. Often times, first time filmmakers try too hard – they cram their films with too much stuff – as if they want to ensure they get everything onscreen that they ever wanted to say just in case they never get to make another film. But Anderson’s films is quietly confident. It opens with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) offering a cigarette and a cup of coffee to John (John C. Reilly), a younger man he sees in a state of distress. Why is he doing this? The movie will, eventually, tell us – but it strings us along for most of its runtime. After this introductory scene – and another, where Sydney shows John how to get a hotel room comped from a Casino, the movie flashes ahead two years. John now follows Sydney around like a puppy dog – looking up to the older man, wearing the same suits, driving the same car. The men spend their time in casinos as professional, but smalltime gamblers. They may have well stayed that way – and happy – had two other characters not entered their lives.

The first is Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a waitress and sometimes prostitute, that Sydney takes a liking to – not in a sexual way, but more the way he sees John – as a surrogate child. There scenes together are rather sweet – but Sydney misjudges who Clementine is – and if she’ll be able to change her ways – or even if she wants to. John falls in love with Clementine – but he’s kind of a dim bulb, and cannot see her clearly either. The second character is Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who works casino security (in the parking lot? – Sydney asks, in a moment that could either be casual racism, or just a way to belittle a man he clearly does not trust). When John and Clementine get themselves into trouble – they call both Jimmy and Sydney to help – not realizing that while they can trust Sydney, they cannot trust Jimmy.

Philip Baker Hall is one of the best character actors in American movies – who has been given two great lead roles in the course of his career. The first was as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s great, one man movie Secret Honor, and the second is here as Sydney. He is a man who guards his secrets – he doesn’t let anyone in on all of them, but provides us with a few hints along the way. He is a man weighed down by regret – who is trying to do the right thing by John – for reasons we will only learn later. Reilly is fine as John – he plays him as a kind of clueless innocent – he doesn’t understand the world the way Sydney does, even after two years with him, and still basically acts like an overgrown teenager. Paltrow is great as Clementine – a woman who gains our sympathy, even if she doesn’t quite deserve it, as she is the one who gets everyone in trouble. Samuel L. Jackson is in fine form – adding another lowlife to his resume, and while he can (and often has) played these types of roles in his sleep, he doesn’t here.

Hard Eight remains the least ambitious film in Anderson’s filmography – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful in its own way. This is a Sundance film – but not a typical one. The mid-to-late 1990s were full of Tarantino knock-offs, and Hard Eight could have gone that way as well, but Anderson is too smart to allow that to happen. The film has a few of his trademark tracking shots, but it never feels like he is showing off. It takes place mainly in Reno – and Anderson finds the most rundown, unromantic casinos and hotel rooms he can find. Being a professional gambler is not fun – it’s basically a job like anything else, and the men go to work every day, hoping to just make enough money to make it to the next day.

Hard Eight is a notch or two below the rest of Anderson’s features so far – but it’s still a wonderful film in its own right. I saw it on VHS back in 1997, and I immediately took note of the directors name – knowing he was going to do something special. I didn’t know at the time that the something special was only a few months away.

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