Published on January 20th, 2016 | by Padraic Coffey1
Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut Hard Eight turns 20 today
On 20 January 1996, a 25-year-old writer and director made his debut at the Sundance Film Festival. He would go on to hail some of the most acclaimed films of his generation, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.
20 years later, we look at how Hard Eight, the first film by Paul Thomas Anderson, holds up.
Film criticism can be a sometimes hazardous endeavour, susceptible to derision when viewed in retrospect. This risk is heightened when assessing the work of a first-time filmmaker. While Total Film, the second best-selling movie magazine in Britain, has proved itself consistently reliable in praising the efforts of commendable films, and dismissing those unworthy of attention, no honest reader would claim the publication of having a perfect record. The writers at Total Film might well balk at the prospect of re-evaluating their review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut, Hard Eight, printed upon its UK release. They awarded the film the lowest possible rating, littering their critique with unfavourable comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, then two films into his career. Tarantino would go from making wonderful films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to overblown, live-action cartoons like Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds. Anderson subsequently became one of the most acclaimed and respected contemporary American filmmakers. Ahem…
Hard Eight is not regarded as one of PT Anderson’s strongest pictures; indeed, many fans of the prodigious writer-director may not have even seen the film, so limited was its release. It shares little with his two subsequent films, Boogie Nights and Magnolia – both sprawling ensemble pieces – focusing on a relatively sparse number of characters. Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), an elderly man, approaches the downcast, somewhat slow John (John C. Reilly) outside a diner in Nevada. In an act of inexplicable kindness, he offers to take John under his wing, and school him in the art of gambling. John, initially sceptical, accepts Sydney’s offer, and finds himself earning sufficient money to comfortable enjoy a lifestyle in Las Vegas. John’s relationship with waitress and on-off escort Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) complicates matters, and Sydney is forced to intervene once again.
In the 1990s, the propensity for any American (and indeed British) film skating close to the crime genre was to be deemed ‘Tarantino-esque’. Seen today, some distance from when Tarantino dominated American independent cinema, PT Anderson’s inspirations behind Hard Eight seem to predate the loquacious Pulp Fiction helmer. Martin Scorsese is an obvious influence, given Anderson’s evident love of epic Steadicam shots, most ably demonstrated in the scene in which John and Clementine are led from a potentially calamitous crime scene by Sydney. So, too, is Spike Lee, another independent filmmaker fond of extended scenes of dialogue driven more by characterisation than the pop culture references visible in the screenplays of Tarantino.
Anderson was fortunate enough to assemble a cast of actors who would consistently reappear throughout his career. Phillip Baker Hall exudes gravitas as the would-be eponymous Sydney (Sydney was Anderson’s original title; Hard Eight was foisted upon him at the behest of the studio). John C. Reilly displays his impeccable comic timing as the dim-witted John, emptily threatening Sydney with his knowledge of “three kinds of Karate (Jujitsu, Aikido and regular Karate)”. His role is an obvious precursor to the amiable but lunkheaded Reed Rothchild in Anderson’s next film, Boogie Nights, and a reminder of Reilly’s dramatic chops, since largely ignored in favour of more overtly comic roles in the likes of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. There are also brief appearances from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, sporting a mullet, and Robert Ridgely, the ‘Colonel’ in Boogie Nights.
In supporting roles, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson give solid performances, though Anderson had yet to develop his impeccable ability to sketch in ancillary characters. The presence of Jackson drew further comparisons between Anderson and Tarantino, though aside from a conspicuous tangent involving an exploding matchbox, there is little to match the flights of fancy present in Tarantino’s flowery dialogue. Considering the enormous leap in terms of budget, crew and running length between Hard Eight and Anderson’s next two films, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, some may view his debut as disappointingly low-key. Hard Eight shares more with Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love than the two epics sandwiched between. In particular, a subplot involving the modest scamming of a casino resembles a similar thread on accumulating frequent flyer miles in Punch Drunk Love. While it may rank as ‘minor PT Anderson’ in the grand scheme of the director’s complete oeuvre, Hard Eight is far from a dishonourable debut, and worthy of elevation from obscurity.