Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Ridgely, Melora Walters
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for strong language, some violence and sexuality
Running Time: 102
Date: 02/28/1997
IMDB

Hard Eight (1996)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Dice Guys

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight is a solid debut film, better seen in retrospect. In 1997, it must have seemed heavily inspired by Quentin Tarantino -- as so many movies in that time were -- especially given the fact that it has Samuel L. Jackson as another tough-talking gangster. Moreover, as skilled and controlled as it is for a debut, it's such a simple, small-scale film that it couldn't possibly anticipate what Anderson would be capable of later on.

Philip Baker Hall stars as Sydney (the film was originally called Sydney), a small-time gambler in Reno who seems to make enough to get by. As the film opens he approaches a crumpled, defeated figure sitting on the ground outside a coffee shop. Sydney invites him inside for a coffee and a smoke. This is John (John C. Reilly), who tried to win $6000 to pay for his mother's funeral, and lost.

Sydney takes care of him, showing him how to work the system and get back on his feet. Years later, they are still comrades, developing a kind of father-son relationship. They chat with a cocktail waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who doubles as a prostitute, and also with Jimmy (Jackson). John goes off with his new friends and winds up in a spot of trouble, which Sydney helps him out of. But unfortunately, Jimmy has learned a deep, dark secret of Sydney's.

Anderson spends more time creating nuanced performances, powered by blunt, potent dialogue, as well as setting up moody shots and rooms. His Reno is still, quiet and sad, and it's always either night or overcast. Sydney isn't one of those classic movie gamblers who either always wins or loses. He's shown quite a few times playing and losing, a couple half-hearted stabs at keno while dining, and a few rolls of the dice at a craps table. (The great Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a blow-out early performance as a hothead craps shooter.) Even the camera rarely shows off, with maybe one slick tracking shot, following Sydney through the casino; he disappears from view for a few beats before returning in view again.

But Hard Eight is, in its way, often more enjoyable than some of Anderson's later, larger films with bigger agendas. I'm glad it's here, and as his career goes on to greater heights, I think it will be very useful in helping pinpoint just who Anderson really is and what he cares about.

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