Hard Eight (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Inertia. The dictionary defines it as "a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion," and this is an apt descriptor for Paul Thomas Anderson's debut feature, Hard Eight. During the first half, virtually nothing happens -- the characters are stuck in a stasis from which escape seems impossible. Then, during the second half, momentum carries the story to its inescapable conclusion. The dualistic nature of Hard Eight makes it a difficult picture to size up. At times, it's engrossing, but, on other occasions, it's a lesson in frustration.

Hard Eight opens with a fascinating, twenty-minute prologue. A dapper, elderly gentleman named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), approaches a disheveled, younger man, John (John C. Reilly), outside a roadside diner. Sydney invites John to join him for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Inside, they talk. John's on his way back from Vegas, where he lost all his money trying to win enough to bury his mother. Sydney thinks his intentions are admirable, and offers him an opportunity: come back to Vegas and learn how to get a free room and maybe even win a little extra cash. Sydney's scam is deceptively simple and undeniably effective, and Anderson presents it with flair and an undercurrent of wry humor.

The rest of Hard Eight takes place two years later in Reno, when Sydney and John are good friends. Theirs is a father/son relationship, with John never far from Sydney's side. As John's girlfriend, waitress/prostitute Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), observes to the older man, "He follows you and worships you like you're a captain." Clementine's actions soon introduce new obstacles in Sydney and John's friendship, as do those of a seedy security advisor named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson).

Hard Eight borrows its share of conventions from noir thrillers, but this is more of a character drama than anything else. Sure, there's some violence, gunplay, and a few plot twists, but everything keeps coming back to the relationship between Sydney, an aging man with an opaque past, and John, the damaged and none-too-bright individual he takes under his wing. Clementine too is one of life's castoffs, but Sydney's interest in her is primarily as a companion for his surrogate son. As much as Sydney likes Clementine, however, that's how much he dislikes Jimmy, whose vulgar, arrogant manner marks him as trouble from the beginning.

I said earlier that portions of Hard Eight are frustrating. Indeed, some scenes are almost painful to watch because of everyone's inability to act decisively. People talk and talk and talk, but the words don't mean anything, and nothing gets resolved. Characters frequently speak in an elliptical manner, taking forever to get to the point. It's the inertia thing. There's a palpable reluctance to change to status quo. Once it's altered, however, the chain-reaction is forceful and unstoppable.

Anyone expecting the high-octane, pop-saturated drive of Pulp Fiction will be disappointed. Hard Eight is a different sort of movie altogether. In fact, it owes more to films like The Music of Chance than to Tarantino's effort. The dialogue is rich but never glib, and the characters, all pictures of loneliness in one way or another, are carefully drawn and developed. In fact, about the only elements Pulp Fiction and Hard Eight have in common are stylistic similarities grounded in the noir tradition and effective performances by the always-solid Samuel L. Jackson.

Jackson is great, as is Gwyneth Paltrow, but those two only have supporting roles. The core of Hard Eight, and the reason to see it, is the dynamic between Philip Baker Hall's Sydney and John C. Reilly's John. Hall, who once stunned audiences with his amazing portrayal of Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor, is especially noteworthy. Though Sydney exudes a confident, assured manner, it doesn't take long for us to recognize the desperation and loneliness eating away at him from within. Hall brings this out subtlety, through a carefully-modulated performance that will linger in the mind long after the details of Hard Eight's minimalist plot have faded.

Hard Eight perhaps teases us with more than it delivers. The casino scenes have a sense of energy and verisimilitude that isn't always present when the action switches to swank hotel room and sleazy dives. Yet there's something almost hypnotic about the way Hard Eight develops -- even in its slowest, most tedious moments, it keeps our attention. And, at a time when independent films are relying ever more on comfortable formulas, that's something of an accomplishment.

Hard Eight (United States, 1997)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Music: Jon Brion and Michael Penn
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1997-02-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1