Hard Eight (1997)
Hard Eight (1997)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.

Release Date: February 28th, 1997 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Actors: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters

 


 

“N

ever ignore a man’s courtesy.” Fatherly Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) spies a young stranger sitting outside a diner and offers a cigarette and to buy him a cup of coffee. Looking downtrodden, the man, John Finnegan (John C. Reilly), opens up about having played blackjack, unconvincingly insisting that he broke even and that nothing bad happened in Las Vegas. John further admits that he’s in need of $6,000 to bury his mother. Instead, Sydney suggests that the two of them drive back to Vegas together for a lesson in gambling. “I’m offering to teach you something.”

John is leery of Sydney’s proposition, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. And if Sydney were to try anything sneaky, John knows three different types of karate (or so he again asserts, speciously). Once in Vegas, Sydney gives precise instructions on how to spruce up John’s appearance, how to approach the floor manager and the cashier, how to acquire a rate card, and how to use cash and tokens and slot machines to create the appearance of excessive gambling. Still needing the money for his mother’s funeral, John opts to follow Sydney around to learn as much as possible; surely there must be additional tricks in the gambling trade. “It’s always good to meet a new friend.”

Two years later, in Reno, Sydney and John are still pals and still gambling. But Sydney seems to have ceased his big betting in favor of casual kino, while John now dresses more sharply. Unfortunately, John’s acquaintance Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) is a bit coarse, which aggravates the calm, refined, older man, who dislikes the way in which rowdier folks sexualize the employees – such as leggy waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young woman who appears to be in a familiar, distressed position, perhaps in need of guidance in the same way that John was previously.

The script is unhurried and relaxed, yet designed in such a way that anything might happen at any minute. The characters are engrossing and the situations amusing, steadily building as if a sudden shift in tone or action could spontaneously transform the plot; intentions and motivations are kept ambiguous, putting the viewer at a certain unease, even as activities turn out to be sweet, comical, or surprisingly ordinary. “Hard Eight” becomes an exercise in spontaneity and unpredictability, like a psychological thriller, despite not immediately showing anything shocking or disturbing or even perplexing.

Halfway through, when the first notion of major trouble arises, the camera cleverly refuses to focus on the conflict, stretching out the impact of the reveal. And, indeed, a series of unexceptional interactions soon spiral out of control, forcing Sydney to become a fixer – a fascinating job that puts the wise, tranquil, sensible mentor in quite the bind. Hall is sensational in the role; he’s naturally levelheaded and entirely believable as the unflappable father figure. It’s the surrogate children, John and Clementine, who do reckless, foolish things – continuously – to keep their advisor on his toes. But even when he’s backed into a corner, he tends to keep his composure. There’s a guarded ferocity under the veneer – one that, when unleashed, is mesmerizing and highly cinematic; Sydney is the absorbing type of character on which a series of films could be based. In the end, it takes too long for the climax to occur, but it’s nevertheless satisfying, especially when – in its understated, impromptu way – with a confident disregard for resoluteness, it cuts to black.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10