“This is a very fucked up situation.”
A heavyweight in the modern American cinematic landscape, director Paul Thomas Anderson got his breakthrough in early 1996, when his first full length feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to instant acclaim. Otherwise known by his preferred title Sydney, Hard Eight serves as PTA’s humble, low-key start before immediately making the transition to more elaborate productions like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
Former mobster Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) meets the young unsuccessful gambler John (John C. Reilly) outside of a coffee shop, and takes him under his wing. This mentor-protege relationship between the two men becomes elevated and dangerous, as John goes on to not only win big, but cause trouble after wedding a hooker (Gwyneth Paltrow) and getting into a great deal of debt with a casino regular (Samuel L. Jackson).
A fairly straightforward story matched by its small production budget, Hard Eight works so well through the way it positions its central characters, as if they are rolling the dice at life itself, getting themselves into extremely risky situations, with next-to-no odds for getting bailed out when their good fortune fades.
The character of Sydney itself, reportedly spun off from the minor character Hall portrays in Midnight Run, is mesmerizing, as he comes across as the archetypal high roller with a lifetime of wisdom under his belt, who you’ll find in any casino. It would end up being Hall’s first high-profile, leading performance as well, and one that gave his career a major boost (in addition to planting the seed for his later collaborations with PTA).
Equally as impressive is John C. Reilly as John—a desperate guy motivated by what’s in his heart over his brains. Stuck in a bad situation from the start, as his plan to win big in Reno to pay for his mother’s funeral is a bust, he gets a major boost of confidence and cash via Sydney’s guidance. His desire leads into the film’s second major conflict, involving a large unpaid debt and a hostage situation that Sydney is forced to step in and assist with. It’s not hard to find some empathy for this down-on-his-luck loser, and Reilly, only 30 at the time, demonstrates how he would become one of this generation’s most prominent character actors with raw, impressive talent.
Hard Eight is a solid drama made doubly impressive by being a debut, as it feels like the work of someone with a lifetime of directorial experience. Those who are only catching up to this after seeing PTA’s more distinguished features may feel underwhelmed from a style/substance point-of-view, but Hard Eight’s power comes through the neo-noir sensibility that flows all the way through.
Interestingly, the impact of changing the title to Hard Eight and reflecting a more gambling-centric plot, made PTA think audiences would confuse it for a porno instead. In effect, this gave him the impetus for his sophomore feature, which you can look forward to reading about in the next installment of this series.
Side-note: the brief sequence involving PTA regular Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as an eager high roller is a must-watch, for any fan of the late actor.
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