What’s in a name?
As the director’s latest film, The Master, finally arrives in all of its years-best glory this weekend, it’s time that we all take a deep look back at the director’s feature film debut, Hard Eight. Also known to some (mainly the film’s own auteur Paul Thomas Anderson) as Sydney, very few American film debuts have been as auspicious and as generation defining, particularly during this era of lower and lower key independent filmmaking, as PTA’s masterful breakthrough drama. No matter what you or anyone else calls it, there is one thing that is synonymous here, and that is brilliance.
Eight stars Philip Baker Hall as Sydney, a monotone gambler who, at the very outset of the film, introduces himself to a young better, played by John C. Reilly. After Sydney introduces him to a world where he can work the system into giving him just about anything he needs, the two grow inseparable even as Reilly’s John meets and marries a young cocktail waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). However, when their honeymoon night goes straight to hell, the two go on the run, only to leave Sydney back in Reno with the charismatic but evil Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who knows a little too much about Syndey’s past life for Sydney’s liking. Every bit a modern day film noir as anything else, Hard Eight is a brilliant, if melodically paced, mood and character piece that looks at a man who feels as though his entire life is one atonement for past sins.
The review started off talking about the man behind the camera, and without a doubt, he’s the film’s biggest star. Anderson has become this generation’s auteur, and while it’s taking a few films for the world to get their handle on just exactly what Anderson’s directorial touches are, they are absolutely prevalent within his debut feature. Chock full of bravura filmmaking, featuring at least two breathtaking tracking shots following Sydney through a casino and up a series of stairs, the film also sees Anderson honing his skills at shooting dialogue. Often featuring asymmetrically shot dialogue sequences (particularly involving two members, one being out of frame looking down upon the other in almost a God-like bit of chiding. Something still seen even in The Master, in which it is rife), the film never allows the viewer to get comfortable, always forcing one to stay on edge not quite knowing why everything is happening or what exactly each character’s motivations are. Characters even find their motivations under attack throughout this film, making it a cold and distant picture, something that to a Kubrick-esque level almost, Anderson has become known for crafting.
Hall is brilliant here, as is his character-actor-filled supporting cast, with Reilly, Paltrow and even Jackson all giving career-best level performances. Hall is as steel-faced as they come, but he also has a shocking power to enrich his characters with a deep well of emotion, which in this film adds a true wallop to the already moving conclusion. Reilly is similar in that he has a true strength in his power to emote, but instead of being almost single toned, Reilly’s strength comes in not his well of emotion, but his breadth of emotion. Able to jump from comedic to scared, happy to upset, almost on a dime, Reilly gives the film a sense of unease yet a sense of heart that without, it would have been just another independent film. Paltrow is solid, with Jackson stealing scenes right and left as the charismatic but hellaciously frightening Jimmy. Hell, even Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up for one single, but show-stopping, performance as a bastard of a young craps player. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, really.
And then there is that title. While this writer respects Anderson like no other, this film should and will always be remembered as Hard Eight. Why? Because it perfectly describes the entire emotional core of the film. Throughout the film, we learn that Sydney bet, once, a thousand bucks on ‘hard eight’ during a craps game. Losing the hand, one can sense the regret and sadness that that single bet is still holding on to his mind. What happens? He does it one more time, only to see it fail once again, and find his entire world flip upside down. He’s never able to leave that ‘hard eight’ alone. Inherently a film about a man’s drive to atone, the film is much more a character study than a cinematic thesis, as something like, say, The Master or There Will Be Blood is, there is something to be said.
However, it will also just simply be known as a masterpiece. With stunning photography from Robert Elswit (who would go on to by Anderson’s right hand man until this week’s release) and a score from the pair of Michael Penn and the iconic Jon Brion, and you have one of the ‘˜90s greatest cinematic debuts. Featuring absolutely masterful performances from everyone involved, Criterion could do far worse than jump all over this film for a stunning DVD and Blu-ray release. With no Blu-ray imminent, and only a solid, but underwhelming DVD sort-of available in the ether, it seems perfectly ripe for a Criterion seal of approval.