Patron Pick – Hard Eight

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Hard Eight (1996)
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Western United States is often seen as the “territory” of various filmmakers. It varies quite a bit depending on the era you grew up in, your tastes, and your love of specific genres. For some, the West is where the stories of cowboys are told. For others, it’s the realm of thematically complicated noir. There are beach movies. There are movies about the movies themselves. For me, the West is best captured in the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. His early slate of films so perfectly captures a tone, a certain feeling that was coming to the forefront and emerged in the early 2000s. In 1993, Anderson spent $10k to make Cigarettes & Coffee, a short film that introduced the character of Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a veteran gambler in the twilight of his life. The film connected with enough people and interested Anderson, so he developed this short into a feature film.

Sydney finds John (John C. Reilly) homeless and sitting outside a diner in Sparks, Nevada. He offers John a cigarette & some coffee. John explains that he lost all his money in Vegas and needs $6k for his mother’s funeral, the reason he bet it all in the first place. Sydney can’t give him the money, but he teaches John a trick that helps him make cash playing Blackjack and get a comped hotel room. Two years later, the men have developed a father-son-like relationship. They live in Reno, where John has a potential romance with Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow), a casino waitress. Unfortunately, this goes south very quickly, leaving Sydney in a position where he has to spend an extraordinary amount on protecting the young lovers. In the process, we learn a dark secret about the aging gambler, one he is willing to kill to keep hidden.

Hard Eight is a very strongly written character study. For a debut film, it is strong, though, in the filmography of Anderson, it is not his strongest picture. That’s to be expected with a first movie. He keeps the scale small, which is the smart thing to do, and the focus tightly on Sydney. It’s a deserved role for Baker, one of the character acting greats who came into his own in the latter half of his life, thanks partly to Anderson’s decision to cast him in this, Boogie Night, and Magnolia. There is a stillness to Baker’s performance, a quiet confidence that shows cracks in the facade in the picture’s final scene. It’s a decisive moment, the audience trusting this guy knows what’s up, only to be put into stunned silence when it’s clear he doesn’t have everything under control.

Anderson uses tracking and Steadicam shots, a visual signature that he continues to develop in recent films. Here it works thematically, following Sydney through casinos as other players sit glued to the slots, unaware of the world around them. He’s presented as slightly above these people, having self-control that keeps him playing low-stakes games like Keno. The one time we see him stray and end up at the craps table produces one of the most memorable scenes in the picture. Sydney is juxtaposed against a brash, young amateur (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The younger man can bait Sydney into betting a couple thousand on a hard eight, only to lose it all. It’s a reminder that despite the exterior, Sydney has vulnerabilities; he desires to see how far he can go but keeps it in check most of the time.

Hard Eight was shot in twenty-eight days, edited in three weeks, and impressed even the actors. Hall remarked that Anderson was just a natural from day one, understanding cinematic language and how to speak to his actors to get the performances he wanted. Anderson felt free of any particular precepts about cinema and simply wanted to make every scene in his film interesting without being obtuse or distracting. That focus on the visual elements of the picture pays off. On paper, Hard Eight isn’t an incredibly complex plot but the way the director shoots it elevates the material. Plenty of close-ups let the audience take in the face of the performers, allowing them to convey the character going through emotions as they react to others. 

This film also reminds us of how good certain actors are that have faded into the background. John C. Reilly doesn’t surprise anyone by being good here, nor does Samuel Jackson as the antagonist. Gwenyth Paltrow is the one I was happy to see acting. I have not seen much of her work, but her earlier roles like this and Se7en are potent reminders that she was outstanding. The post-Chris Martin marriage/GOOP period hasn’t done her any favors, but back in the 1990s, she was an excellent actress. Clementine is a complicated person, with strong positive traits and some awful ones. Paltrow’s performance is a complex person who isn’t a background prop.

Hard Eight is a movie that doesn’t provide the audience with much closure. That speaks to the development of Anderson at the time, but it also works for this story. It’s adjacent to noir, with seedy characters doing bad things. Morality is exceptionally gray here; it’s hard to say who is good or bad when the end credits roll. Everyone has done something terrible, but they aren’t unique in this way. The film focuses on Sydney to the very end, which is why it all works. We’re focused on this guy and how he reacts to the world, how tightly wound he is, and how Sydney manages to stay in control when surrounded by constant temptation. He’s a person who lives in fear of what would happen if he was to risk everything the way part of him is hungry to do.


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