Title: Hard Eight
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel Jackson, F. William Parker
Synopsis: Old-school hustler Sydney (Hall) adopts a luckless gambler John (Reilly) and schools him in the finer points of gaming and playing the casino system to win. However, their fortunes change when their past and present predicaments collide.
Critique: Anderson’s feature debut is an original and refreshingly simple movie – there are four main characters, and a pliable crime story with the director’s (now) trademark ear for canny dialogue and eye for playful scheming. Like all of Anderson’s work, Hard Eight is expertly cast. Pairing Philip Baker Hall with John C. Reilly feels like a stroke of genius. Hall is the seasoned, plain speaking Sydney, with Reilly, as always, playing the ever lovable dullard. They make a brilliant master/protégé duo.
Jackson’s natural energy shines, and Paltrow weighs in with the most emotional range; she’s solid, but, in hindsight, it feels as if she’s filling in for Julianne Moore.
Upon release, Hard Eight was up against that forgettable slew of Tarantino wannabes and Scorsese knock-offs, and it very well could have been lost among the rubble. Movies like Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings, The Way of the Gun, Very Bad Things, and that oh-so-dreadful thing called The Boondock Saints were popping up everywhere. Luckily, for all concerned parties, audiences and critics saw that Anderson and his soon-to-be crew of stock players had some more gray matter than the vulgar and stupid films on the periphery.
Hard Eight is an ideal debut picture. It’s witty, engaging, and knows its limitations as well direction and tone – self-assured but not smug or eager to please. Hard Eight is a crime film, but unspecificity is what makes it an original crime film – the story eloquently eschews and recalls film noir territory so that we can forego that moniker. The central characters are definitely on the wrong side of the law – Sydney feels like a reformed, or semi-retired wise guy – but Hard Eight isn’t quite a gangster film either. The second largest risky undertaking is John and Clementine’s harebrained ransom scheme gone wrong. Posing John C. Reilly, one of the most unimposing actors imaginable, effectively subverts the machismo notions of aforementioned genre films; watching John flex his muscles is about as intimidating as an elderly woman clobbering a mugger with her purse.
The characters here are indeed archetypes, but they have an advantage over the two following hyperactive super mosaics that followed in being fleshed and dimensional. Hard Eight is an original crime film with well-drawn characters that are humanized by a concentrated cast of talented players and an eager director who was evidently aiming for more.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Hard Eight has been in the queue for this column for a long time now; the movie felt like an inevitability for a spine number given the directors ascendency and importance. It received distribution through MGM’s independent film branch, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, and there’s plenty overlapping titles (Cul-de-Sac, Satyricon, Roma) with MGM and Criterion. Now that Hard Eight is currently streaming on Filmstruck I think we can hedge our bets on this movie coming to the collection.
Honestly, I was surprised that Punch-Drunk Love beat it there, purely on a distribution level; at the end of the day, I think everyone will be happy with more Paul Thomas Anderson in The Criterion Collection.