Hard Eight (1997)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson
Hard Eight is the story of a friendship that begins when an older man meets a young man, down on his luck, and offers him a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and, eventually, a path to a new lease on life. John (Reilly) is sitting on a curb outside a diner, having come to Las Vegas to win money to bury his mother, when he meets Sydney (Hall), a longtime card shark who sees something in the desperate young man, and offers him help. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature begins simply, lacking the bombast and import that would come to define his masterful later work. It’s a small, character-driven drama that explores the seedy world of small time cons and the seedy characters who pull them in casinos and pool halls. It’s an aimless, meandering sort of picture for the first hour, allowing the audience to really get a sense of who these characters are and what their relationships are to one another, and to completely get a sense of place as the action shifts to small town Reno, Nevada. The film’s final act picks up the pace, providing a few surprise reveals and some violent retribution, but at its core, Hard Eight is a movie about four desperate people and their desires and shortcomings. It isn’t a pretty movie, or a fancy one, but when I’m looking to briefly dip my toes into the type of world peopled by figures both sad and seedy, it’s a perfect choice.
I’ve written about a lot of first features and debuts in this space, but I think that Hard Eight is the most accomplished yet. Though it offers only fleeting glimpses of the cinematic mastery that Anderson would eventually display, the film stands on its own as a tight and entertaining caper. The thing that I’m always impressed by when I return to Hard Eight, which I do fairly frequently, is the efficiency with which Anderson builds up these characters and their relationships. A few lines of perfectly written and delivered dialogue are enough to make the audience feel that they know each of the principals and their motivations. Though each of them keep secrets until the end, these characters are familiar and, mostly, endearing. In a way, these characters are tropes – The Benevolent Grifter, The Down-on-his-Luck Loser, The Hooker with a Heart of Gold – but Anderson’s narrative subtlety and the excellent performances of the entire cast, elevate them beyond thin stereotypes.
Anderson managed an impressive assemblage of talent for his debut feature. Hall, who also starred in the short film Sydney, from which Hard Eight is adapted, is perfect in the role of the paternalistic, wise conman. His lined face speaks to the years of experience Sydney has had and the things that he’s seen in those years, existing on the fringes of underworld societies. Watching Hall take a long, patient drag from a cigarette is akin to taking a master class in world-weariness. There is a hardness at the core of his performance, but it never registers as cruel, rather that hardness is earned through experience, and in his interactions with the other characters, it manifests itself as a persistent, paternalistic care, especially for Reilly’s John. The two make a good pair of foils, obviously forming a father/son pairing as Sydney takes the place of the father who John lost many years ago. John is a typical Reilly character, kind and sweet, but more than a bit naïve. I’ve always been impressed by the vulnerability that Reilly often shows as an actor, and that openness and vulnerability is on full display here, as he plays a character completely set adrift in the world, looking for any harbor.
Though the film is, without a doubt, the story of Sydney and John, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson round out the supporting cast and are each given a few scenes in which to shine. Both characters are used to reveal deeper characteristics of the two principals, with Paltrow’s Clementine falling for John, and vice versa, and helping to introduce a stronger, more independent side to his character in the film’s third act. Clementine has an inner strength that’s belied by her made-up exterior, a quality that Paltrow fully puts on display in the film’s pivotal scene. She and John have beaten and kidnapped a john who refused to pay Clementine after sex, and they call Sydney for help. Though she’s understandably emotional and hysterical, Clementine is pulling all of the strings in the scene, urging John and Sydney to kill the man, remaining singularly focused on her money and her besmirched dignity while John is spinning out of control in the face of a situation he can’t comprehend. This is Paltrow’s only featured scene in the movie, but she makes the most of it, revealing a nuance to her character that wasn’t readily apparent earlier in the film. Likewise, Jackson isn’t afforded many opportunities to really shine in Hard Eight, but he plays the role of Jimmy, a small-time hustler and keeper of an important secret, perfectly. Jimmy’s big scene comes near the film’s end, when he confronts Sydney about a secret from his past, and demands that Sydney disappear. To this point, Jackson has played Jimmy as an affable, if sleazy, character, whose sinister side is well contained. However, when he confronts Sydney in the parking lot, he seethes rage and righteous anger, delivering the sort of monologue that Samuel Jackson has become known for. Jimmy is intimidating without ever becoming unhinged, and his malice is all the more potent, because Jackson’s restrained performance gives the impression that it could be wielded as a club, if need be. It’s a short scene and a small role, but it’s vintage Samuel L. Jackson, and the venerable character actor nails it.
Beyond just crafting realistic, relatable characters, Anderson also brings Las Vegas and Reno to life in subtle ways. His casinos feel lived in, a bit worn down at the heel, but authentic. He isn’t interested in the glitz of the strip, but rather in the second-rate casinos and the seedy, extended stay motels that proliferate throughout the rest of Las Vegas. Hard Eight does every bit as much examining and extrapolating on the character of Nevada as does Casino, but the stakes here are smaller, simpler. When Sydney introduces John to a particular hustle early in the film, the object is not to get rich quick but to get a comped room, and maybe a free meal voucher. The scene in which Anderson introduces the con is brilliant, Hall breaking down the intricacies of the simple grift in voiceover while Anderson meticulously documents the ins and outs of the scheme, which involves John appearing to spend more than he is by cycling his chips and a small amount of cash through different cashier windows and getting a player’s card stamped for money that he isn’t really spending. It’s a simple but effective con, and the scene is, likewise, a simple but effective way of suturing the audience’s interest to this particular world and expanding their understanding of it. The rest of Hard Eight is understated and murky, while this early scene is insistent and direct, but it serves as the perfect introduction to the film’s world. Anderson does the one thing a gambler should never do, by tipping his hand early, but it works.
P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I think that he will be thought of as one of the greatest directors of all time, if that consensus hasn’t already been cemented. Hard Eight, of course, falls short of the cinematically sublime level that a few of his more recent pictures have achieved, but it is a great achievement in and of itself. It might be easy to dismiss this small film as an inauspicious debut, but it’s such a well-crafted, fully formed work, one that features hints of the greatness that Anderson would go on to achieve. Hard Eight is, honestly, the Anderson movie that I end up rewatching most frequently, probably at least once a year. It simply never disappoints, and when I’m looking for a taut, character-driven drama, there are really few better in my collection. It’s a movie that I suspect is still rather underseen, but it really deserves more attention, even outside of the context of Anderson’s larger body of work, or his auteur status. From its well-written characters, to its perfectly established and envisioned world, and impressive performances across the board, Hard Eight has a lot to like on its own. It’s a somewhat forgotten movie worthy of reflection and reevaluation.