Paul Thomas Anderson is writer and director with a very distinctive world-view and a well-established preoccupation with exploring the power of the parent-child dynamic in all its forms. Although he first came to prominence with his epic take on the 1970s porn industry, Boogie Nights, I believe he has yet to improve on his debut movie, which was filmed as ‘Sydney’ but released, very much against his wishes, as Hard Eight, a tale of love, murder and gambling in Reno.
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
Sydney: Never ignore a man’s courtesy.
Not a filmmaker usually associated with the crime and mystery genre, Anderson’s most recent film, Inherent Vice, took a sideways looks at the private eye genre as re-imagined by Thomas Pynchon. His debut is seemingly a much more conventional genre piece, a tale of gangsters, molls, gamblers and hustlers with a violent climax. But the film is really a chamber piece for four voices, led by a magisterial performance from Philip Baker Hall as Sydney, a veteran gambler with hidden depths (and secrets). John C Reilly plays John Finnegan, a naive drifter who has loser written all over him until he meets Sydney, the two becoming unlikely friends (their opening scene together outside and then inside a cafe is very Tarantino-like perhaps self-consciously an actor’s showcase but in its profane, and here largely unquotable, way, very funny, sad and tremendously well done).
Sydney: You know the first thing they should’ve taught you at hooker school? You get the money up front!
The film sees Sydney help the lonely lad who can’t even pay for his mother’s funeral by teaching him how to win playing slots in a casino and also teaches him when to quit. But he can only help him so far seemingly as he starts getting into very serious trouble when he meets Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cocktail waitress who is quite sweet really, but not very successful, even when moonlighting as a prostitute. But she falls for Reilly and gets him into lots of serious trouble. They are the main characters of the first half of the film, with the plot only really kicking in when John’s sleazy friend, Jimmy, played by Samuel L Jackson, enters the scene. A crude small-town ‘security consultant’ he brings potential death and destruction to them all – not least because he knows a very dark secret from Sydney’s past. Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a great little cameo as a gambler at the tables, but Anderson wrote the film with Hall in mind and the actor is utterly compelling throughout as the tough but loving old-timer. When we learn that he is divorced and has an estranged son and daughter who are roughly John and Clementine’s ages, we realise just how much baggage he carries with him and why he wants to help them so much. I think this is a great little movie – spare, raw, surprising, and very well controlled – a neo-noir that probably could have been made by no other filmmaker. Check it out, you won’t be sorry.
DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in a special edition DVD, it offers a decent anamorphic transfer (as well as a pan and scan version on the flip side) with two audio commentaries, one featuring Anderson and Hall and the other again with Anderson and other participants. There are also extended segments from a workshop version of three scenes stages in detail at Sundance before the film was made, with Courtney B. Vance in the role eventually played by Samuel L. Jackson and Moira Kelly in the one played by Paltrow.
Hard Eight (1996)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producer: Mark Johnson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Art Direction: Nancy Deren
Music: Jon Brion
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Ridgely