Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), a veteran gambler, teaches John (John C. Reilly), a broke youngster, the ropes of gambling in Reno. In two years, John becomes Sydney’s protege. But things begin to regress after John falls for Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favourite filmmakers, he’s such a fantastic director and his movies are great. The only movie of his I had not checked out yet (until now) was his debut film, Hard Eight. I knew very little about it except that it is generally known one of the lesser movies in his filmography, and having seen it I can definitely confirm that it is weaker compared to just about everything else he has made. Nonetheless it is still a really good movie, and I’d say that it is worth watching.
Hard Eight at its core is a lowkey crime noir drama, with a particular focus on characters over plot. The writing by PTA was pretty good with some well written dialogue, though it was still a bit rough and was lacking in some areas. After the first half it loses some steam and it becomes predictable, the second half is definitely weaker. The story is pretty simplistic, and by the end, the main story arc is a little generic and nothing we haven’t seen before, but it does enough to keep your attention throughout. The pacing can be a bit slow at times, even for a movie under 100 minutes in length, but for most of it I was interested in what was happening.
The acting from everyone is really good. Phillip Baker Hall is really great in the lead role as Sydney, he is truly the star of the show here. From his first scene onwards, there’s an air of mystery that surrounds him and you can never tell what he is up to. Despite not knowing too much about him, he really makes the character believable, intriguing and great to watch, a real screen presence. One of the strongest parts of the movie for sure. John C. Reilly is gives a really solid performance in one of his dramatic roles, and Gwyneth Paltrow also did very well on her part. Samuel L. Jackson isn’t in the movie a ton, but he’s effective in his scene chewing screentime. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who would go on to be a frequent collaborator with PTA, also has a brief yet very memorable scene in the movie.
Even for his first movie, Paul Thomas Anderson showed that he was a great filmmaker. You can see early signs of his style here, even if he hadn’t perfected it just yet. There’s nothing flashy with the editing or anything (and is certainly not on the level of like There Will Be Blood), but it is very well put together and shot. Standout sequences involving the casinos, particularly one early in the movie involving Phillip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly at a hotel, were really well made particularly. The direction doesn’t feel rough around the edges, it feels confident, like it would be at least someone’s second film instead of their first.
Hard Eight is a solid crime thriller, very much influenced by films from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino in both writing and direction. It’s not great, the pacing can be a bit too slow, the writing isn’t always the best, and it gets weaker towards the latter portion of the movie. With that said there are some really good performances (particularly from Phillip Baker Hall), and it is directed quite well. Overall I’d say that it is for sure worth checking out, especially if you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s other movies.