John has lost all his money. He sits outside a diner in the desert when Sydney happens along, buys him coffee, then takes him to Reno and shows him how to get a free room without losing much money. Under Sydney’s fatherly tutelage, John becomes a successful small-time professional gambler, and all is well, until he falls for Clementine, a cocktail waitress and sometimes hooker.
Kicking off our first directors retrospective of 2015, we’ve decided to go for Paul Thomas Anderson, who was recently in cinemas with ‘Inherent Vice’. Similar to our three previous retrospectives (Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and David Lynch), Anderson has a distinct filmmaking style and is a true auteur who makes each of his films very much his own. To date, Anderson has directed 7 films, beginning with his low budget debut in 1996, ‘Hard Eight’, which we’ll kick off with today.
‘Hard Eight’ (also known as ‘Sydney’) is a neo noir crime film that starts with a deliberately slow pace before revealing its thriller tendencies once we’ve familiarised ourselves with the characters. Anderson expanded it from his own short film from 1993 (‘Cigarettes and Coffee’) and the core cast features several recognisable faces, including a couple who would go on to become more famous later in their career (Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly). The film begins by introducing us to the main protagonist, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), an elderly gambler who has developed a methodical approach to winning money at the casinos of Las Vegas. One day, he finds a young man, John (John C. Reilly) outside a diner and after a conversation, he offers to teach John how to make money from gambling. What begins as a teacher-mentor style tale starts to reveal more layers as the story develops and the circumstances grow more sinister. The enjoyment in the plot development comes from how organic and natural it all feels, aided by terrific characterisation of the main players.
I always get a kick out of seeing a strong character actor given a rare opportunity to play a leading role, and ‘Hard Eight’ is superb for this, giving Philip Baker Hall a platform to shine. Hall is perfectly cast as Sydney, with his world weary face suggesting a past yet to be uncovered, and he particularly excels at delivering some of the great dialogue from Anderson’s script. John is young and naïve, and Reilly plays him well, with his relationship with Sydney having a real odd couple feel about it. Filling out the main cast are Gwyneth Paltrow’s waitress cum hooker Clementine, who attracts John’s attention, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a new friend of John’s with an agenda of his own. Through quietly understated dialogue scenes, information is parcelled out about all of these characters and Anderson’s script really gives us a sense of what makes these people tick from a minimal number of scenes. This makes it all the more powerful when the plot kicks into a higher gear later on and the easy going dynamic is pushed aside for the elements of a thriller.
Anderson’s fluid camerawork is another joy and really brings the film and the characters to life. He excels at both the flashier shots, such as a terrific tracking shot around the casino that follows Sydney walking in whilst simultaneously capturing the everyday atmosphere of the players and the staff, and the quieter conversational scenes where he’ll hold the camera on a character’s face. Featuring a rare lead performance from Philip Baker Hall, ‘Hard Eight’ is a strong debut from Paul Thomas Anderson that showcases many of the elements he would perfect in his later works, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson and Philip Seymour Hoffman