Paul Thomas Anderson has a certain way of making the lives of the sordid fly by with a curious shine. And his debut feature, 1996’s Hard Eight, acts as an audition of sorts for his later, more shattering works (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). Like Robert Altman, his films are more pronounced when they’re epic in scope; when the ensemble is lined up from corner to corner; when the story is melodramatic and, at times, whimsical. In comparison, Hard Eight is small, settling down to tell the story of a professional gambler who takes a down-on-his-luck young man under his wing for unknown reasons.
The previously mentioned gambler is Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), an aging sinner who dresses like an uncorrupted oil tycoon and speaks with the slippery woes of a pastor. When we first meet him, he invites street-dwelling bum John (John C. Reilly) for a cup of coffee, eventually inviting him to travel down to Reno with him to learn the ins and outs of gambling and make a living. With no prospects, John takes the offer, unsuspecting that Sydney may have underlying intentions.
Two years later, John has become Sydney’s right-hand man, calling a local casino home and calling hooker/waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) his main squeeze. Sydney now views the kid as a makeshift son, helping him stay out of trouble and always providing support when the going gets rough. For the most part, the three live a peaceful, if unfulfilling existence — but when John acts irrationally one night and takes one of Clementine’s john’s hostage after he doesn’t pay her, the mini-empire Sydney has created for them may come crashing down.
As an introduction to the works of Anderson, Hard Eight provides a foundation but not a feast. We have the three-dimensional characters, dressed to the nines in eccentricities that could only work in the hands of Anderson, the compulsively listenable dialogue, the modernized music, the plot points that seem unexpected because everything is so real.
But missing is the lived-in atmosphere that Anderson so frequently boasts, which does not count as a complaint because Hard Eight is 97 minutes while his most recent film, Inherent Vice, was 149. It feels minor thanks to the operatics of his other movies. And yet, even when Anderson is taking a day off (or in this case, introducing himself), his sensibilities are still a hell of a lot more effective than most of his peers.
But the best thing about Hard Eight is the casting of Philip Baker Hall, a character actor usually confined to supporting parts in A-list movies that seeing him pave the way for once is an unequivocal treat. Few actors could play Sydney with such believability — with his puppy-dog eyes and weathered face, he has the look of a man who has made grave mistakes during his lifetime, only in his old age deciding that now is the time to make right. When it is revealed why he decided to help John in the first place is at once shocking and unsurprising — it’s equal parts engraging and heartbreaking. As John, Reilly is lovably apish; as his girl, Paltrow jerks our emotions — young, beautiful, and emotionally mature, we can see her potential but are also aware that the world is too cruel a place to get her out of the purgatory she calls home.
If you’re looking for Anderson’s breakthrough, turn toward the wondrous Boogie Nights, a deliciously satirical yet tragic account of the Golden Age of Porn. But Hard Eight, small and to-the-point, is still competent and clever enough to make for above average entertainment. It’s for the die-hard Anderson obsessors who ran out of epics to fixate upon. B-