Memorable big-screen personas are a trademark of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography. Mark Wahlberg as porn star Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, Daniel Day-Lewis as the sociopathic oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, and Joaquin Phoenix as the pot-smoking gumshoe “Doc” Sportello in Inherent Vice are just a few of P.T. Anderson’s creations that reside in the Valhalla of great movie characters. Sadly, one of his most interesting and sharply written is also relatively unknown. His name is Sydney, which was the title of the film until the distributors became worried audiences would think it’s about Sydney, Australia. It was changed to the equally obtuse title of Hard Eight, which refers to rolling two fours in a game of craps.
Hard Eight takes place in Reno casinos, hotel rooms and coffee shops. Completely at home in this artificial environment is Sydney, an aging professional gambler of below-average height and above-average intelligence, embodied by the great character actor Philip Baker Hall. Fastidiously dressed in suit and tie, and one to never mince words, Sydney’s dignified manner and worldly-wise aura instantly engender respect, earning him the nickname of Captain from Clementine, a cocktail waitress played with ditzy panache by Gwyneth Paltrow in one of her first substantive rolls. John C. Reilly, excellent as always, plays John, a down on his luck and not too bright man-child who recently went bust after attempting to gamble his way to six thousand dollars to cover the cost of burying his deceased mother. When Sydney hears about John’s plight, he magnanimously offers to teach him the ins and outs of casino life. It’s not initially clear why, although it might be because John reminds him of his estranged son. Sydney’s ultimate motivation for helping is withheld for a third-act payoff when a small-time thug named Jimmy, portrayed with powder keg volatility by Samuel L. Jackson, threatens to upend the love and trust that has grown between the two men.
P.T. Anderson’s self-assured filmmaking belies the fact Hard Eight was his very first feature. He was only twenty-two when he wrote the script, and twenty-five when he began shooting. It barely received a theatrical release back in 1997, and despite being made by one of the most esteemed auteurs of American cinema, its DVD release has been long out of print. To this day, Hard Eight remains criminally under-seen. Hopefully that’s about to change. In addition to a new HD transfer currently available on streaming, a freshly minted Blu-ray is being prepped for release.
If you don’t like films involving gambling, don’t be dissuaded. The type of gambling portrayed in Hard Eight is largely metaphorical, though the stakes couldn’t be higher – betting on people you deeply care about. One exception is a standout scene that takes place at a craps table with P.T. Anderson’s frequent collaborator, the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman plays an unnamed gambler of questionable sobriety trying to act like he’s having a great time rolling the dice even though he’s obviously struggling with gambling-induced mania; it’s three minutes of stellar acting that exposes the dysfunctional side of casino life in a viscerally unnerving way and done entirely through the power of performance.
With its vivid characters, atypical milieu, and intriguing story, if ever there was an overlooked film worth discovering, Hard Eight is it.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski