Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hard Eight (1996)

Eager to watch one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performances in the wake of his unfortunate passing this weekend, I decided to finally see a film I have long been putting off: Paul Thomas Anderson's feature film debut Hard Eight, aka Sydney. Over the course of his career, Hoffman would appear in five of Anderson's six films, only sitting out for 2007's There Will Be Blood, and had most recently co-starred with Joaquin Phoenix in 2012's The Master. However, Hard Eight would not be Hoffman's coming-out party - that would be Anderson's second film, 1997's Boogie Nights - but it was the quiet announcement of Anderson as a talent worth watching.

The film begins with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) buying a cup of coffee for despondent John (John C. Reilly), who went to Las Vegas to gamble for money to pay for his mother's funeral only to break even. Sydney has sympathy for the kid, and takes him back to show him how to essentially cheat the system. Two years later, John is Sydney's loyal right-hand man, and while John has befriended another gambling big-shot named Jimmie (Samuel L. Jackson), Sydney is trying to protect his favorite waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), from being swallowed up by the seedier side of Reno, Nevada. When John is in need of money, things naturally go south, and Sydney's real connection to John is revealed.

More after the jump.

The most astonishing thing about this film, on first glance, is how assured of itself it is. This is a film about con men, gangsters, and gamblers, at a time where the post-Sundance indie boom meant there were no shortage of films about con men, gangsters, and gamblers. Yet this one stands out for how matter-of-factly it treats these characters. There isn't any stylistic pizazz or macho-cool posturing here, just a relatively simple story that doesn't over-embellish the lives of the characters. "Realistic" isn't really the word to describe them here; "human" is the most appropriate. It's something that has become a hallmark of Anderson's films, and it's remarkable to see it not just present, but confidently so. It's a joy to see how close to fully-formed Anderson was here in his debut feature, especially knowing the modern masterpieces he would subsequently make.

Hard Eight is also solid evidence for the comparisons of Anderson to another important American filmmaker, Robert Altman. As Altman's career progressed, he became better known for his sprawling ensemble epics, such as Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993), and Gosford Park (2001). However, he began his career with much smaller, idiosyncratic films, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and, with its focus on gambling, California Split (1974). Even in these films, Altman possessed a unique point-of-view and presented these stories differently from the Hollywood norms of the time. In Hard Eight, Anderson is doing something very similar. He's taking a common narrative from American cinema - which was very popular at the time - and presents it in a new way, asking the audience to consider the characters' humanity instead of their "cool" but not in an overly dramatic way. There's a distance in Anderson's treatment of these stories, not the satirical edge that Altman brought to his films, but rather a curiosity into what makes these characters tick.

The actors are all uniformly great, as can be expected. At the time, the most famous person in the cast was Jackson, who had Pulp Fiction behind him, with Paltrow coming in a close second as "Brad Pitt's wife in Se7en," as well as his real-world girlfriend. And both of them turn in great work, particularly Paltrow, who finds a lot of depth in Clementine's choice to engage in darker acts for extra money. Reilly, too, is terrific, and the film is a great reminder of the invaluable character actor he was before he rode to Hollywood stardom as Will Ferrell's on-screen sidekick. However, the film belongs to Hall, who makes the most of this starring turn by imbuing Sydney with unspoken wells of regret that have calcified within him, giving him a steely detachment even when he's being compassionate.

Where does Hoffman fit in? He's present only for a single scene, as an obnoxious dice-roller (he's credited as "Young Craps Player") who teases Sydney with youthful cockiness. Even though it's a bit role that's mostly inconsequential to the rest of the film, Hoffman gives it his all, making himself the center of attention with his cocksure magnetism. It's not much of a role, but the performance is so strong that it's no wonder Anderson gave him a key role in his next film.

Overall, Hard Eight is a remarkable debut for a singular talent in American cinema. It's not on the same level as many of his other films, but it's a confident first step that showed how much potential two great talents - Anderson and Hoffman - would unleash upon the world. A-

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