Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is topping a good many critics’ top ten lists. So it’s a good time to revisit Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight, a neo-noir from 1996.
In Hard Eight, the down-on-his-luck simpleton John (John C. Reilly) encounters an older loner, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in a diner. The 60ish Sydney, who Has Seen It All, takes pity on the 20-something John and offers to help him get some money. Sydney takes John to Las Vegas and downloads Sydney’s casino expertise. John becomes Sydney’s mentee, and eventually gains confidence, some financial security and the hope of a non-trashy future.
But, alas, this is a neo-noir and John can’t leave well enough alone. He starts making some stupid decisions. He falls for the cocktail waitress (and trick-turner) Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). He starts hanging out with security guy Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), who turns out to have a scary side. Soon these folks get themselves into a dangerous situation WAY over their heads. Perhaps Sydney knows a way out…
Hard Eight works largely because of the characters of John and Sydney and the performances of John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall. Reilly is especially gifted at playing a goofy naif.
Hall is brilliant as Sydney, the wise loner. We imagine that Sydney has operated in cynicism for decades, but something, perhaps some fundamental, accumulated loneliness, causes him to reach out and adopt John as his protege. It’s as if Sydney suddenly feels the need to father someone. Why does he pick John as his son-figure when it’s clear that John has a limited ceiling? Is it that John is just available when Sydney gets the urge?
Paul Thomas Anderson’s career exploded with his next movie Boogie Nights, also with Reilly, Hoffman and Hall. Then Anderson went on to make Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and, now, Phantom Thread. That’s a body work remarkably filled with originality.
Boogie Nights was also the breakthrough movie for both Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman, of course, was later nominated for an Oscar in Anderson’s The Master after winning one for Capote.
Just before Hard Eight, a 23-year-old Paltrow had a part in Se7en. But in the two years after Hard Eight, she was cast in Emma, Great Expectations, A Perfect Murder and her Oscar-winning role in Shakespeare in Love.
Jackson had already broken through with his performance as Gator the crackhead in Jungle Fever and defined his career as the iconic hit man Jules in Pulp Fiction. But Jackie Brown, Star Wars, Shaft, The Hateful Eight and 70 more feature films were still ahead.
By Hard Eight, Hall had been working steadily for 26 years – almost all on TV. He was best know for his Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s 1984 Secret Honor. AfterHard Eight, he went on to roles in Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Rules of Engagement, The Matador and Zodiac. And, in his 80s, he became instantly recognizable as Walt Kleezak in Modern Family.
Hard Eight is available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.