In his seventeen-year career, director Paul Thomas Anderson has proven himself to be not only the best director of his generation, but one of cinema’s greatest directors. Anderson is astute in understanding the human mind, and movies such as Magnolia and There Will Be Blood take the complexities of life to a whole new level. While Anderson’s major breakthrough was his sophomore effort Boogie Nights, the filmmaker kicked off his career with the equally impressive Hard Eight, a tense thriller that grows more exciting each passing minute. While it is perhaps the weakest of Anderson’s filmography, Hard Eight is marvelously entertaining and highly rewarding.
Hard Eight begins with Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), a longtime gambler, going to a diner and discovering a young man loitering on the side. That young man is John (John C. Reilly). John has just went up to gambling hopes of making $6,000 to pay for his mother’s funeral, but ended up breaking even. Feeling sympathy for John, Sydney takes him to Las Vegas and teaches him how to earn himself a room at a casino by recycling his chips.
Two years later, Sydney and John are still good friends. John has made the money for his mother’s funeral and is comfortable at a casino in Reno. There, Sydney and John meet a waitress named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who soon becomes intertwined in their lives. John also befriends James (Samuel L. Jackson), who menaces Sydney in their brief first encounter. Things for the characters take a turn for the worst as an unexpected incident threatens their safety and their lives.
Paul Thomas Anderson, like many 90s directors, stylizes the movie in a Scorsese-like fashion. While Hard Eight does not take place in an expansive world, everything seems so polished and refined. Anderson moves the camera with such skill and vitality it’s hard to believe it’s the filmmaker’s first feature movie. He also fills the movie to the brim with such excellent, juicy dialogue. There are many memorable quotes that populate Hard Eight and make it fast-paced and lively.
Hard Eight, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s other films, has a fantastic cast. Philip Baker Hall gives an amazing performance as Sydney and adds a level of seriousness to the character few actors provide. John C. Reilly also does well as John, though I wouldn’t call it the actor’s best performance. While I’ve never been a fan of Gwyneth Paltrow, I was very impressed by her performance as Clementine and I’d say it would rival her role in The Royal Tenenbaums. And Samuel L. Jackson provides the charisma only Jackson could do. Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a cameo as a rowdy gambler.
While Hard Eight doesn’t achieve the perfection of Anderson’s later movies and has a few bumps in its story, it is an effective tale that foretells Anderson’s power as a director. Movies rarely get as tight as this.
Editor’s Note: Tomorrow, I will post an analysis on Paul Thomas Anderson now that I’ve finished his filmography. Also, two characters mentioned in the movie, “Floyd Gondolli” and “Jimmy Gator,” are roles played by Phillip Baker Hall in Anderson’s next two movies (Boogie Nights and Magnolia respectively).