Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review of Paul Thomas Anderson's First Feature Film Hard Eight

In his first feature film, Paul Thomas Anderson crafts a thoughtful tale about the relationship between a weathered gambler and his young protégé.

(review contains spoilers)

A year before Paul Thomas Anderson made a big splash with his widely acclaimed film Boogie Nights in1997, he released Hard Eight. The small-budget film was written and directed by Anderson, and it showcased his undeniable gifts as a filmmaker. Barely known outside of hardcore Anderson fans or major film buffs, Hard Eight (1996) is an underrated jewel of a film. It is an engrossing examination of the lives of a small group of people who inhabit the gambling world in Reno, Nevada. It is a world of brightly lit casinos, sparsely decorated hotel rooms, casual prostitution, 24-hour restaurants and diners, and, of course, nonstop gambling.

A Close Friendship Formed In A Unique Setting

The film focuses on the relationship between a weathered gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and a naive young drifter named John (John C. Reilly). Sydney first spots John sitting despondently in front of a diner just outside of Las Vegas. John has lost all of his money gambling. His mother had recently died, and he went to Vegas in hopes of winning enough money to pay for her funeral. Sydney offers him a cup of coffee, some conversation and a little money for food. Initially, John is wary of Sydney's generosity and believes that the much older man has ulterior motives, possibly of a sexual nature. However, John's suspicions are quickly assuaged, and he starts to warm up to Sydney.
Sydney takes John under his wing and becomes his mentor, teaching him the ins and outs of the gambling scene and how to work casinos to his benefit.

The film has a great prologue where Sydney shows John how to score comps at a Vegas casino with spending very little money. Following Sydney's schooling, John winds up getting a free hotel room and other cool comps. As the film progresses, Sydney and John develop a father-and-son-type bond. And later in the film, secrets about Sydney's rather shady past begin to surface, such as him being a  former mobster. It appears that Sydney is attempting to atone for past sins in his close friendship with John.

Anderson's Theme Of Family In Hard Eight

In Hard Eight Anderson first employed what would become one of his recurring themes: familial bonds—particularly those formed outside of the conventional family structure. Anderson touched on this theme again in his next film Boogie Nights. In Boogie Nights, a young man who is estranged from his real family becomes part of an extended family in the adult film industry, and in Hard Eight a directionless young man forms a father-son bond with a man who introduces him to the world of gambling and casinos. In these two films, both characters have mentors who also function as surrogate paternal figures: adult film director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) to rising young porn star Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights and Sydney to John in Hard Eight. Also, in both films the friendships are formed in very unique settings and circumstances.

Cast Delivers

Anderson draws strong performances from all of his cast members. It is clear in Hard Eight and his other films that the filmmaker has a great love and appreciation for the craft of acting and enjoys working with talented actors. In all of his films, he provides each cast member an opportunity to shine, even down to the smallest roles. Gwyneth Paltrow turns in one of her finest performances as John's girlfriend Clementine, a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a hooker. Paltrow brings a wounded vulnerability to the role of Clementine. She is a damaged soul who is desperate and often self-destructive, and Paltrow's portrayal makes this very flawed character interesting and sympathetic.

And Hall is impressive as Sydney. His stolid, poker-faced acting style was a perfect fit for the role; it would be hard to imagine any other actor playing Sydney. And the always reliable Samuel L. Jackson brings his usual cocksure charisma and charm to his role of John's lowlife friend Jimmy. Also, Reilly portrays John with a boyish innocence and sweetness that plays well off of Hall's deadpan, world-weary Sydney. And Philip Seymour Hoffman completely dominates the one scene he's in as an obnoxious craps player who tries to get underneath Sydney's skin.

An Auspicious Debut For Anderson

Hard Eight is a much quieter and slower film than Boogie Nights, but it is just as entertaining. The film cost a modest three million dollars to make, showing that Anderson doesn't need a big budget to make a great film. The pacing of the film is unrushed and deliberate, with Anderson showing nice subtle touches and attention to small details in his scenes. The film has some great tense moments as well as touching and funny ones. Hard Eight was a very impressive debut for Anderson and probably the most overlooked and underrated film in his oeuvre.

Hard Eight at Amazon

Related Blog Entry: Boogie Nights: A Look Back At A Decadent Decade

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