Hard Eight (1996)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow
Hard Eight, the meticulously crafted first feature from Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, There Will be Blood), is completely and unpredictably engrossing. From the very beginning, when Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) offers to give John (John C. Reilly) a cigarette, buy him a cup of coffee, and teach him the ways of a professional low-stakes gambler, the film moves swiftly from one scene and setting to the next without pausing to take a breath. Downhill plotting like this, where each scene leads to the next without an end in sight becomes a showcase for spellbinding performances from Hall, Reilly, a frighteningly charismatic Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps most compellingly from an unforgettable Gwyneth Paltrow.
Clementine, Paltrow’s character, is an injured woman. This can be assumed from the very first time we see her, clad in a provocative cocktail dress and sharply crimson lipstick, she absorbs the lecherous words and gazes of the men who surround her. Her character, like every character in Hard Eight, has been forced by terrible circumstance into desperation, and is driven to take the only avenue she sees open to her. The sadness in her every scowl and spoken word is heartbreaking, and the regret she harbors is only reaction to the world’s unrelenting cruelty. This is just the same with John (Reilly), who begins the movie penniless and clueless, and crawls out of his trouble only by doing everything Sydney (Hall) tells him to. Despite these two assured performances, both of which are complex and layered, the movie belongs to Hall, who fills the story with both structure and emotion.
Sydney (Hall) begins the movie speaking seriously, posing himself as a no-nonsense pragmatist, one offering aid to society’s castoffs for no reason other than that they needed help. As the story progresses and we learn of the reasons Sydney does what he does, the emotion breaks through but only subtly; almost unnoticeably. After John (Reilly) and Clementine (Paltrow) have a quickie wedding at a Reno chapel, Sydney watches the wedding tape, and though he barely moves a muscle throughout the scene, the intense emotion roiling underneath is extremely powerful. For the entirety of the film, he stands as an immovable post around which all the emotion and intrigue of the film swirl, and the emotion behind his tight face and businesslike behavior hide a well of intense feeling.
This brings me to the significance of the title Hard Eight, which I think reveals the purpose of the film as a whole, and of Sydney’s (Hall) character in particular. Hard eight refers to one of the stupidest bets one can make at a craps table. It means not only are you betting that the two die, when rolled, will equal eight, but that you will win the bet only when the total eight is reached by two fours. This makes the odds of a roll achieving hard eight only one in thirty-six. This means that late in the film, when Sydney places a thousand-dollar bet on hard eight, he does it fully understanding that he more than likely will never see his money again. This is a movie about sad, hopeless people struggling to make due in a world that wasn’t made for them. And with the direction of a blossoming master making every emotion powerfully tangible, it is an exhiirating viewing experience.