Hard Eight is a great film because it introduces us to characters that most of us don’t know in real life, but who certainly exist. It understands these people, their motivations and their actions. In the earliest scenes, its main character, Sydney, seems like a mythic figure. The life he leads, the places he goes, and the people he meets seem to be preordained. He seems omniscient, calm and full of wisdom. Later we realize that his wisdom does not stem from some inspired source – he’s simply a man who has made mistakes and does not want to make them again. When he first sees John (John C. Reilly) sitting outside of a diner, clearly broke and down on his luck, Sydney offers to buy him a cup of coffee. Why? Maybe he just wants some conversation, or maybe he sees a reflection of himself. Sydney has been there before. In fact, he’s been most places. Sydney is cool, constantly aware of his environment. He’s a gambler by trade. And while that would seem to be a strange way to make a living, it suits him. He sees the world in terms of odds, he makes decisions based not on emotions but logic and facts. John tells him he went to Vegas to try and win six thousand dollars playing blackjack. Sydney asks if he knows how to count cards. John doesn’t. “If you don’t know how to count cards, you shouldn’t play blackjack.” This is the start of a unique and engaging relationship, which is at the center of Hard Eight. These two men will grow to respect and even love each other, despite the odds.
Hard Eight is best categorized as a character study, which is an all-encompassing term used when films don’t fall neatly into one specific genre. It is an observation of the man named Sydney, played by Philip Baker Hall. It is undoubtedly the performance of Hall’s distinguished career, the one he will be remembered for. Hall manages to exude honor and insight. His Sydney is a man not of morals, but of principle. Cheating a casino out of a room is acceptable, but disrespecting the waitresses is not. Hall’s expressiveness lends a great weight to his performance. His face is weary and aged, the bags under his eyes may be the only way for us to tell how truly tired Sydney is. But what is Sydney tired of? His unfulfilling existence? Gambling to make ends meet? Or maybe he’s tired because of his past, what he’s done and the things he must always carry with him.
Philip Baker Hall’s performance, while the standout of the film, is not the only great one. John C. Reilly is so warm and likeable, as he has been throughout his career. Seeing a great performance like this after an actor is already well established in our minds makes us appreciate them more. John C. Reilly has charm and charisma, so much so that we accept him in serious roles like Noah Deitrich in The Aviator, or in farce like Walk Hard. His ability to play innocent and (to a degree) ignorant so well is a testament to how strong of a presence he truly is on screen. In Hard Eight, he must constantly contend with Hall’s searingly powerful performance as Sydney, and yet he is never overshadowed. John is the audience’s conduit into the film. He, like us, is mesmerized by Sydney and his knowledge, always waiting to see what the next course of action will be.
The other great role belongs to Gwyneth Paltrow. She plays Clementine, the cocktail waitress and call girl whom Sydney takes a liking to, and who John falls in love with. It can hardly be called a breakthrough performance for Paltrow, who by this point in her career had already been in Se7en, Emma, and would win an Oscar just two years later for Shakespeare in Love. And yet, compared to all of the work she would later be known for, her method in Hard Eight seems fundamentally different. Clementine is quiet and reserved, except when her anger is allowed to come to the surface. She is a damaged person, one who lacks confidence. There is one particularly heartbreaking sequence in which she looks herself over, pulling at her tights like an insecure teenager. Her actions throughout the film are, to an extent, the only true plot in Hard Eight.
The true star of the film is the screenplay, which is superbly written. Paul Thomas Anderson has since established himself as one of the greatest directors of all time, but to see such confidence in his ability in his very first film is astounding. Here’s a film that could have gone in so many directions, that could have become contrived or veered off into simpleminded action. Instead, Anderson never alters the rhythm he establishes in the first scene in the coffee shop. This is a movie where people sit, talk, and form lasting bonds. And while there is a sequence near the end of the film which can be classified as action, it is so fundamentally different from what most audiences would consider an “action sequence.” Credit must also go to Anderson as a director, to have enough confidence in his material to let the story unfold in simple yet exciting ways. His use of insert shots – something which may be overlooked – is particularly impressive. The transference of money is an important theme in Hard Eight. By reserving extreme closeups for shots of money changing hands, Anderson emphasizes the importance of these transactions, and what favors truly mean to these people.
The movie also establishes themes which Anderson has since returned to again and again in his work. John’s relationship with Sydney is simply the first example of a young man searching for a father figure in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Anderson’s fascination with this type of relationship can later be seen in Boogie Nights between Mark Whalberg and Burt Reynolds, and is the central theme of Magnolia, the film for which he will be remembered most. But while those films are interested in showing us fathers and the impact on the lives of their children (surrogate or otherwise), Hard Eight is more intimate. It is a thorough and detailed examination of John’s admiration for Sydney, and the reasons behind Sydney’s selfless love for John. Like most first films, this one is personal and revealing about its author. Anderson put a lot of his own father into the character of Sydney, whose name was originally what he intended the film to be called, and it was with much bitterness that he ultimately was forced to change the title to Hard Eight (which Anderson has stated sounds like a Skinemax film).