Although he may refute the title, Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the finest auteurs working in cinema today. With diverse story lines ranging from The Golden Age of Porn in Boogie Nights, to the 19th century oil boom of America in There Will Be Blood, the one thing that is synonymous with all of his work is a stress on comprehensive character development. It’s an almost terrifying quality for a filmmaker to obtain; creating characters which transcend primary emotions and reach more realism and fragility than most people I know outside of the movie hall. Hard Eight is PTA’s forgotten debut, with ensemble characters that rank at the top of his flawless career.
It all opens with an observant, twenty-minute prologue. Sharp-suited elder gent Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) approaches a disheveled, young brute named John (John C. Reilly), outside a roadside diner. Sydney invites John to join him for a cup of coffee, cigarette and conversation. With the testy John loosening up, he details that he’s on his way back from Vegas, after trying to win enough to bury his mother and failing drastically. Sydney thinks his intentions are admirable, and offers him a once in a life time opportunity to come back to Vegas and learn how to win back his pride and cash. After some convincing, the two set off in the sunset with dollar signs in their eyes, arriving in the glitzy Sin City and start rolling dice.
The rest of Hard Eight takes place two years later in Reno, when Sydney and John are surrogate father and son. Hanging out in gambling dives, their game gets more complicated with the arrival of a love interest in trashy casino waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and John’s seedy security enforcer buddy Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) brought into the fold.
Although it might not hit the three-hour running time of Magnolia, Anderson stays true to formula and doesn’t rush things in Hard Eight. During the first half, virtually nothing happens, with characters getting to know each other for the first time just like the audience is. Hall is fantastic as the laconic and comfortingly stoic Sydney, perfectly matched with the underrated Reilly marvellously portraying the lost man child at his side. Paltrow brings the melodrama as the femme fatale destined to mess things up, and even Samuel L. ‘I’m the luckiest bad-actor in the world’ Jackson gives perfect comic relief as the straight-talking Jimmy. These are four very strongly presented, contrasting characters working harmoniously together, with such patient exposition leading into the noir-like second half building the momentum to the film’s fatal conclusion.
The movie flaunts fluid cinematography by Robert Elswit, who manages a few dazzling tracking shots, which also will become a staple of Anderson today. And aside from those onscreen performances and glorious display, the original music score from Michael Penn and PTA-regular Jon Brion is diverse and engrossing; with the glamorous casinos soundtracked by lounge muzak which is both familiar and unnerving. This audio-visual interplay reveals the films themes of despair and loneliness, with all four characters gambling their stagnant lifestyles in a chance to get that one last big win.
Even with it’s downtrodden atmosphere and zingy crime-caper dialogue, Hard Eight doesn’t quite resonate through time alongside Paul Thomas Anderson’s exceptional body of work. Light on plotting, big on moody personality, it is ostensibly an accomplished debut feature from a filmmaker with an eye and heart for great cinema.
Hard Eight is available on DVD & Blu-ray in all good stores. You’ll probably find it streaming on NetFlix/Hulu too, if you’re lucky.