Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight is Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature film. It’s no secret that I adore his follow-up, Boogie Nights, and I was also greatly impressed by Magnolia and There Will Be Blood (I haven’t had the chance to see Punch-Drunk Love yet, but I will soon enough). I was delighted to see that PTA can apparently do no wrong, because even his low-key premiere film is an extraordinary delight.

Hard Eight is a very simple movie. It begins with Philip Baker Hall finding John C. Reilly down on his luck and sitting miserable outside a diner. After Hall convinces Reilly to come with him for a chance to make some money, he reveals that he’s a professional gambler, and subsequently shows Reilly the ropes. Two years later, Reilly is a successful and happy man, albeit with a few brooding problems – he’s become close to a snidely Sam Jackson and has fallen in love from afar with Gwyneth Paltrow, who unbeknownst to him works as an occasional prostitute.

The movie is mostly dialogue-driven, which could easily result in a boring film. However, through excellent direction and even better performances, the film ends up being far from uninteresting. John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall are natural conversationists, able to inject humor and pitch-perfect intonation into Anderson’s crafty dialogue. Hall especially shines, bringing to his role an elegant and respectful somberness that makes me wish he were a grandparent of mine.

The other roles are also perfectly cast. Sam Jackson is a devious heel, in a role that is reminiscent of his turn in Pulp Fiction, only with a bit more malaise. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, talented as always, steals the single scene that can barely contain him. Gwyneth Paltrow is the only cast member whose acting is a bit questionable, but does adequately even with her character’s volatile disposition.

Though the story is simple, and perhaps more familiar than one might desire, it moves along with brevity and good economy. This is an excellent three-act narrative, with appropriately crescendo-ing climaxes at the end of each. The neon-lit interiors of casinos are the perfect setting for these characters, who are ostensibly happy but inwardly conflicted by their pasts and presents.

Anderson’s direction is fantastic, and a nice sample of what would come in later films. Consider a scene in which he masterfully creates suspense. Hall has received an urgent call from Reilly, and has to go to a motel to see what’s going on. Anderson uses a signature fluid tracking shot that follows Hall from his car all throughout the motel complex until he finds the right door. Reilly then stalls Hall’s entrance, and even after he gets into the room, a single static shot only shows us the two men as they discuss what they are looking at in the room. Each of these three instances builds suspense in more and more unique ways, the last making the wait almost unbearable as we yearn for the power to grab the camera and pan over to what they are witnessing. After the motel room scene concludes, the same long tracking shot is done in reverse, when we are aware of the situation and that time has become of the essence. The long, inward-looking shot creates just as much tension, in a sort of reverse way.

Hard Eight is an overlooked film, and it shouldn’t be by any means. The casting is unbelievably perfect, and every actor takes the well-written material and makes it their own. Anderson’s direction is as engaged as ever, and what’s most interesting is how contained the story is. It’s a masterpiece of a debut, making a simply story into a fantastic movie, and serves as proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is able to craft a concise and commendable film.

Final rating: 8.5/10

–James A. Janisse


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