When it comes to Paul Thomas Anderson, I either hate his films or can merely appreciate them. I’ve yet to find one of his movies that fits my tastes. That is, until Hard Eight. True, I had to go back to his earliest feature to find any success. Perhaps since 1996 he’s forgotten how to make films entertaining and artsy at the same time. Who says art has to be boring?
Hard Eight begins as and older gentleman, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), finds a young man sitting on the ground outside of a coffee shop off the highway near Las Vegas. Sydney approaches the stranger, John (John C. Reilly), who looks like he’s in desperate need of help in life. He finds out that John recently blew all his money in Vegas trying to earn enough to pay for his mother’s burial: $6,000. Sydney says he can’t provide him with all that money, but he can go back to Vegas and teach him how to gamble “correctly.” We’re led to believe that Sydney is a professional gambler.
We fast forward two years and John and Sydney are still friends. Best friends. They’ve set up shop in Reno and we now see that John is living the same life as Sydney. Same car, same drinks, same outfits. He idolizes the man.
Sydney speaks very precisely. With everything he says, you listen. He always dresses in a suit and talks to everyone with the utmost respect. John, on the other hand, is goofy and not quite as wise. He aspires to be just like Sydney, but doesn’t have nearly the same life experience. Yet.
Over time, the two men develop a friendship with a young cocktail waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). She and John like each other, but both of them are afraid to make the first move. Clementine has some big time issues, herself. She’s a people pleaser, and is also frustratingly irrational on the verge of psychotic.
The performances are solid all around. Hall, especially, is undeniably great here. Even Reilly plays his role mostly well. Though he has a tougher time being emotional when he’s called to be (which happens more times than you’d think). Maybe I just can’t look at him without thinking of Cal Naughton, Jr.
Anderson plays the long game here, eventually giving us everything we want to know, but on his terms. And we don’t mind. We’re satiated with enough fun little surprises along the way. For most of the film we’re not quite sure why Sydney is even helping John, but eventually we forget we even asked the question. Anderson’s biggest achievement here is building dynamics and story without us ever noticing.
Hard Eight is the type of movie where the plot doesn’t really matter. We stay fully engaged because of the intriguing characters and the vibrant, compelling dialogue. There’s a kinetic story with events that continue to unfold even though they may not seem connected to anything else at first. Anderson, who writes and directs, gives us a tight script—tighter than any of his other films, which are filled with hyperbolic ramblings and pretentious pontifications. But with Hard Eight, we feel like we’re watching real people in real situations, and we’re not disappointed.