Hard Eight is the debut film of a director that is quickly becoming a favorite of mine: Paul Thomas Anderson. While it may not be a compelling as There Will Be Blood or The Master, it’s a decent start and a solid film. It doesn’t have the same amount of sheer uncontrollable madness that those films to, but it does examine a relationship between two men and you can sort of see the beginnings of something like The Master in Hard Eight.
The film opens with John (John C Reilly) sitting outside of a diner. In the refection of the door, we see an older man approaching. He asks John if he wants a coffee and a cigarette. They sit down in the diner, get their coffees and talk. John is trying, without much success, to win enough money at gambling to pay for his mom’s funeral. The older man is Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) and he wants to help. John is suspicious of him at first; how often do guys just come up to you wanting to help you win money? He eventually warms up to Sydney and they become great friends. He teaches him to gamble more successfully, even though I don’t think he ever quite makes the amount of money he needs. It’s not clear because there’s a time lapse of 2 years between Sydney first teaching him to gamble and subsequent events.
So these two have established themselves as pretty successful gamblers in Reno. They’re not raking in the dough or anything too extravagant, they’re making enough to get by. John gets interested in Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a waitress/prostitute that works in a casino they frequent. Sydney (I suppose for that reason) tries to reach out to Clementine like he did with John. He invites her over to their hotel room (no, not for that reason) and she stays their for the night. The next day she and John get into all sorts of shenanigans. First off, they get married, and second, despite them now being married, Clementine picks up a client who won’t pay her. To get her money, she calls John (who’s been wondering what happened to her this whole time) and he holds the guy hostage while demanding that his wife bring Clementine the money. John then calls Sydney when he realizes what a stupid thing he just did. The scene where he finally shows up is probably the best in the film, because all of the characters are trying to figure out what’s going on.
After this is all settled, we get to the real heart of the film: why this Sydney guy just feels the need to help John. When he first helps John, John’s suspicious of him, thinking he has ulterior motives. Clementine thinks the same way when Sydney tries to help her. The plain simple fact of it is that people generally don’t just go around helping strangers unless they want something in return. That’s the way everybody in the movie sees it and that’s the way I saw it too. For a great portion of Hard Eight PTA has you thinking that Sydney is really just a nice guy that wants to help people. In my view, that’s the mystery behind the movie and what makes you keep watching it because any problems that the characters have are solved pretty quickly.
One character that I haven’t talked about yet is Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson), a friend of John’s that works casino security. From the first moment he meets Sydney, they don’t really like each other. I get the feeling that Sydney kind of thinks Jimmy is disrespectful or something, and he tries to correct his behavior a bit while they are in each other’s presence. I don’t think he really cares what Jimmy does unless he has to put up with it or if he thinks it’s going to get John into trouble. Though he seems minor in the beginning, Jimmy becomes very important later on towards the end of the film. He may know the reason that Sydney is doing what he is doing.
As I said, this film isn’t too crazy. I’m almost wondering whether PTA felt like he had to make a more mainstream movie his first time out, but whether or not this is true he does deliver a more mainstream movie here that’s easier to absorb than his later films. The thing about Hard Eight is that you can sort of see where PTA is coming from with the stories he tells in his later films, especially The Master. I feel like Dodd and Freddie are later and stranger versions of Sydney and John. The thing is that in Hard Eight the relationship between the two men is a lot more normal and easier to classify. Old guy helps out younger guy for what turns out to be a pretty easily understood reason. In The Master it’s about a million times more complicated and harder to characterize. But in their beginnings they’re very similar, at least based on the information you have at the beginning. These two guys just happen upon each other and then develop a very strong relationship, and you spend the whole film trying to figure out why. In Hard Eight, PTA tells you.
Speaking of The Master, Phillip Seymour Hoffman actually has a small part in Hard Eight. I didn’t even recognize him for a second, but it’s definitely him (thank you, imdb!). Hard Eight isn’t any monumental achievement in cinematic history, but it is a solid debut film for PTA. It’s not There Will Be Blood or The Master; it’s a much smaller and less ambitious film that you can just watch. The acting is still great, the direction is interesting in spots, and it’s a decently enjoyable film. From my standpoint at least, it’s more interesting to think about as PTA’s first film rather than on it’s own merrits, but either way it’s perfectly fine.
“I want you to see that my reasons for doing this are not selfish, only this: I’d hope that you would do the same for me.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars