By William C. Benker
Hard Eight – 1996 – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight is his most straightforward narrative, perhaps due to the normal constraints of a director’s first big picture. Aging gangster and gambler Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) retreats to Vegas to settle down with his spoils and finds that his knowledge of high stakes is useful to others. Budgeting limitations could have weighed the film down, but the young director uses it to his advantage. While fans of his later work will find Hard Eight to be his most conventional movie, it contains moments that foreshadow PTA’s greater canvas of cinematic storytelling.
Most scenes in the film take place in diners, hotel rooms or the corner of a casino. No doubt a budgetary pitfall, it gives Hard Eight a claustrophobic atmosphere. Sydney acknowledges the surrounding world of chance. He plays his hands safely and chooses carefully when to bet big. (There’s a great cameo by a future PTA regular that fails to meet Sydney’s approval). He’s a ‘classic’ in everyone’s eyes. Shaking hands with the floor managers and thanking the waitresses, you can tell he’s been there forever. And like the village prophet, everyone wants to know him. His character doesn’t grow much, but his desire to help others he thinks are in need illustrates the redemption he craves. In this sense the world around Sydney is visibly small and yet, though never fully revealed, you notice demons lurking within him.
Thematically, the tension erupts from his followers. An ugly situation comes to a head with his protégé, John Finnegan (John C. Reilly). It takes Sydney’s calm, resolute knowledge to
alleviate the situation. The prodigal son dresses like Sydney and orders the same drinks, but his naïve youth makes him a prime victim of Vegas. John and his new love, Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow), are like children getting caught stealing in a candy store. Only the candy in this situation is replaced with guns, prostitution, extortion, etc… Of course when called for help, Sydney plays his hand accordingly. The real problem is that he’s experiencing something new and the concern he feels for the wellbeing of the young couple dredges up the past. Sydney’s helping hand, however, is only given to those he respects. Another important character, a security worker named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), isn’t given the time of day, yet desperately craves the classic’s attention. Chivalry is Sydney’s strong suit, but Jimmy’s methods and habits around town aren’t appreciated by the older generation. Whether PTA is illustrating issues of race and prejudice is up to the viewer to decide, but he’s careful not to dive too far into it. Instead, Sydney and Jimmy play it off as a mere struggle for mutual respect, which is given on one side, but not received on the other.
Having seen PTA’s later work, we know his perspectives reach far outside the city, but studios don’t know that yet. Recognizing Hard Eight’s limitations is an extension of our knowledge as fans of the director’s work. With that being said, the film comes off slightly stale. Histories are revealed but never explained and incidents are reactions to character flaws that aren’t completely examined. While this applies to many movies, it’s difficult to not leave wanting more of PTA’s ideas. The overall explanation is simply Vegas, the city of sin. Sydney is surrounded by those who mistakenly accept Vegas and the concept of chance as a way of life. Yet it’s he who ultimately decides to help others in need, while gaining redemption for a former life of crime.
Hard Eight is PTA’s least engaging work. While entertaining enough, looking back, it takes the frame of a resume builder that gave studios and audiences the hint that he could tell a singular, easy to swallow story. It holds within the beauty of PTA’s work: dark humor, quick dialogue and an eye for universal truths. However, we get only mere glimpses of these. Much like Vegas, Hard Eight leaves the fans wanting more