Sydney is a poker-faced professional gambler with a soft heart for a hard luck story. He plays guardian angel to unlucky John and a hooker, Clementine, whom he grows to love like family. When John and Clementine’s honeymoon night leads to a disastrous hostage situation, Sydney takes care of it, as usual. But when slick casino pro Jimmy threatens to reveal a secret from Sydney’s past that could destroy his relationship with the newlyweds, Sydney decides to hedge his bets and not leave anything to ch…nce.
Long before we were witness to Dirk Diggler, Frank TJ Mackey and Barry Egan, we were introduced to the world of Paul Thomas Anderson by a film called Hard Eight. Son of veteran announcer Ernie Anderson, Paul submitted a short film at Sundance entitled Cigarettes and Coffee. After doing some development on the film, he was able to eventually turn the project into Hard Eight, a title given to the film by the studio, despite Anderson’s desire to name it Sydney, after the lead character, portrayed by Philip Baker Hall (Bruce Almighty).
Almost immediately, we see Sydney meeting John (John C. Reilly, Chicago), and inviting him inside a Las Vegas restaurant for a cup of coffee. Through conversation, we find out that John has lost money gambling, and was looking to make money to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes John under his wing and back to a casino, and with Sydney’s instructions, we see John manage to scam his way into a free room in the hotel. Flash forward to 2 years later, as both are in Reno, John runs into Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson, Coach Carter), a somewhat ominous character in the film. Jimmy is a casino vet in charge of security, and when Sydney asks, “Parking Lot?” you can tell in an instant what Sydney thinks of Jimmy, and how he deals with him. And Jimmy knows that Sydney is not just another old gambling pro. But just before that moment, Jimmy and John go to Sydney’s table to sit down. John sits, while Sydney waits a beat, to give Jimmy a once-over, perhaps sending the message that he doesn’t take crap from anyone, but also to get an idea of who he’s dealing with. Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love), Sydney’s waitress, runs into Sydney later, leaving a hotel room, her face and makeup clearly disheveled. Sydney decides to take her in as well, and unbeknownst to him, Clementine and John have fallen in love and married, and on their wedding night, Clementine and John decide to take someone hostage. Sydney works it out so John and Clementine leave without being arrested, but Jimmy also knows about this, as well as something from Sydney’s past that he does not want revealed, and we watch what Sydney does to make things right with everyone.
A couple of things help distinguish Hard Eight from other first time efforts from young directors similar in age and stature to Anderson. The first is the outstanding dialogue that he creates for his actors. Anderson starts the movie from a basic premise that if you put two people in a small area, (John and Sydney are in a coffee shop early in the movie), that the dialogue will somehow flow out, and freeing up the movie to go in any direction that Anderson chooses. And from that start, some outstanding lines of dialogue are spoken, including a monologue by Hall late in the movie that, for me, ranks as one of the most compelling and memorable in recent memory. The second is the cast of this film. Not many people can boast a first film with two future Oscar nominees (Jackson and Reilly) and an Oscar winner (Paltrow), but Anderson seems to do a good deal of casting based on the story he writes. He manages to get many of the actors he wishes for roles, and they’re very loyal. Aside from Hall and Reilly, other actors who frequent Anderson’s “stable” include William H. Macy, Luis Guzman, Melora Walters and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the latter two appearing in small roles in Hard Eight, including Hoffman’s hot shooting, severely mulleted craps player. Hall and Hoffman have an interesting meeting in the film, as Hoffman’s craps rolls are getting more and more successive, his ego grows to equally huge size as he berates Hall. When Hall (as Sydney) throws $2,000 down on one roll, Hoffman is brought back down to earth, knowing clearly that while he has whatever attention a hot craps shooter can get, he’s still small potatoes compared to Sydney.
The Dolby Digital Surround soundtrack does the job here. There’s very little real action, it’s mostly dialogue, and it’s reproduced well without any problems.
Columbia/Tri-Star’s DVD attention to this film is pretty adequate, despite the inclusion of a full frame version of the film on this flipper disc. The widescreen transfer presents a clear image, free of most artifact issues, along with a pretty deep black level.
For extras, two commentary tracks, one with Anderson and Hall, and another with Anderson, Hall and Sundance exec Michelle Slatter kick off the DVD. The latter commentary is pretty dry, but the first, with Anderson and Hall only, is very good for my money, describing Anderson’s influences for this film, as well as what he wanted to accomplish with the script. He also discusses his writing and directing styles, along with a script he was writing at the time of this commentary, which would later grow to be Magnolia. All in all, fans of the director will enjoy listening to this. There is also a deleted scene showing John and Clementine kissing, along with 2 trailers, and even the Sundance lab films are here too, with Courtney Vance (Law and Order: Criminal Intent) in the role of Jimmy, as the phone call and coffee shop scenes are included, along with the scene where Jimmy threatens Sydney. The biography and filmography information for Anderson, Hall, Reilly, Jackson and Paltrow complete the DVD.
The first film of this great young director is more compelling than expected, and fans of his work should make an appointment to see this one, they will be richly rewarded. I’d even go so far as to say a must for fans of modern day cinema.
Special Features List
- Director and crew commentaries
- Deleted Scenes