Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman
As a city, Las Vegas has needed to battle with its image for decades now. From being run by mobs to being the place where everyone gets to live out their most latent fantasies, it retains a level of glamour while attracting such a wide range of characters finding their way there. Not all savory but they certainly make for interesting characters within a narrative such as in Paul Thomas Andersons’s debut feature.
Slick gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) runs into John (John C. Reilly), who just spent all of his money trying to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes him under his wing to learn how to play the system and the two create a strong bond until some revelations and added figures begin to complicate things in the near future.
Watching directorial debuts always display useful nuggets into a filmmaker’s style even if it does not display the very best the individual can do. Some debuts are lackluster but serve as a warm-up for a director fine-tuning their craft and creating masterpieces later on. Hard Eight serves this function for Paul Thomas Anderson, and so many facets just scream out the greatness he will display to all of us with his later films. That’s not to say anything particularly negative about this feature because it’s overall a solid picture and one with strong writing and assured direction.
Throughout the feature, we follow Sydney and his interactions with John, from the early suspicious ones to the near father-son type of conversations held in the feature. The very first conversation works so well as it sets the table for both of these characters with Sydney having incredible wisdom to part with and John being very paranoid of what the older gentleman really wants from him. It says plenty about John and his outlook in the world, where helping out a random person could not possibly come with good and noble intentions. The default lands in the nefarious. This entire conversation shows Paul Thomas Anderson just knows how to write a scene in such an engaging manner. The camera does not do much here as it centers on two men sitting in a diner. It all comes from the dialogue and how each sentence begins to break down the defense of John and constructs the beginning of their relationship.
The rest of the feature takes place a few years later, and as you can imagine, things get a bit complicated as John grows in confidence and other variables get introduced. Additions like Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) add some more filling into the story as they push the two initial characters we follow. It makes it so much more thrilling and they inevitably add the conflict the two leads will have to take on later in the film. These two represent two different aspects coming right at the core of what many, much like John, seek in life: love and power. No matter what unsavory elements may come with it, these two elements remain two things people crave, and the lengths John must go to in order to secure them dictates how the story moves forward.
Carrying most of the scenes is Philip Baker Hall and my goodness he puts in a delectable performance. Utilizing a sense of wise confidence, he walks around with a level of genuine mystery around him. Even if the other characters do not have as much disclosed about them, Sydney remains the biggest question mark of them all. He commands respect from others and certainly receives it, even being donned “Captain” from Clementine. Things about his past get teased out in such small measures that when something revelatory does get revealed, it leaves such a large imprint in the story. Quick-talking but with a sense of purpose, Hall absolutely nails this role with Paul Thomas Anderson able to focus directly on him, which varies a bit from the larger ensemble fare he prefers later in his career.
Such a strong directorial debut, Hard Eight shows the inklings of what makes Paul Thomas Anderson a unique and monumental figure in the world of film. The narrative builds enough intrigue throughout keeping the mystery ever-present and making the necessary reveals when the time comes. Vegas serves as the perfect backdrop of the events occurring here as it adds believability for just how wild things get. Let’s just say it’s typically the things that happen and then say in Vegas. A strong quartet of actors bring it to life guided by a young and ambitious director, this film has the goods.