Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature-length film is a testament to his consistency as a filmmaker, admirable in itself. It’s a character-driven movie of confused morals and intentions–the latter remaining unknown for a majority of the film. It features a bravura performance from that actor who you’ve never seen not old and always wondered why–Philip Baker Hall–because this was the movie that introduced him to the world. His name is Sydney, and he seems to be a giving, fatherly character. He finds John, played by John C. Reilly, sitting on the ground in front of a coffee shop, broken down by the thought of his empty-pockets following his departure from Vegas. He offers him some coffee and the opportunity to sit down with him. Like most would, maybe not so many homeless folk, he wonders what Syndey wants from him, stating upfront that he wont do any gay acts.
The relationship between Sydney and John grows into a budding friendship and a personal enterprise for John. Sydney teaches him how to reel in the cash with only fifty dollars, and ever since, John’s been doing fine scrapping cash in casinos. Sydney reveals at one point that he has kids, but that he hasn’t seen them in a long time, very similar to the character of Amber in Anderson’s next feature, “Boogie Nights”. The suppression of emotion from losing their kids, be it emotionally or legally, is replaced by the need to be a parental figure to someone completely unrelated to them; Amber is obsessed with Dirk, Sydney with John, though for slightly different reasons.
The swooping camera pans that are so familiar to fans of Anderson are on great display in Hard Eight. Walking through the flashing casino floors, the main characters present themselves like kings, regardless of the fact that they aren’t Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino. The two leading men, played by John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall, would end up mostly being character actors for the bulk of their careers. And great ones, too. We can see from the beginning that John is not a particularly intelligent person; and the problem doubles once he falls in love with Clementine, an equally witless waitress played by Gwyneth Paltrow. They get married suddenly, very early on in the relationship. After a short time, they end up in a violent pickle of sorts, one of the best scenes of the movie; on the Hard Eight audio commentary, Anderson and Philip Baker Hall talk about the struggle of shooting the hotel scene, or any scene that involves big chunks of dialogue in a constrained area such as a single-bed room. They beg Sydney to help them out, like a child shocked and afraid of the fact that they’ve just spilled milk. They are, through the eyes of Sydney, a bunch of crazy, unguided kids living in an overwhelmingly wild-west world.
The movie is mainly about Sydney: It’s a character study above all else. ‘Sydney’ was in fact the original title Anderson intended for the film, until executives demanded it was changed to the more flashy and marketable title of Hard Eight. The film is essentially split into two acts: Sydney helping John and Clementine; and the discoveries made about Sydney once the two lovers have to run from Vegas. The first act has a confusing, somewhat blank tone. We’re given virtually no clues as to why Sydney wants to help these people, besides the fact of being a bored old man consumed by habitual afternoon gambling. The second half is much more revealing and consequentially more engaging, featuring a pitch-perfect performance from a young Samuel L. Jackson. Once the end credits roll, the movie feels rewarding and contemplative, a story of dangerous desires in an equally dangerous city.