The title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight refers to the casino game of craps. One of the most lucrative bets in the game is to use the two dice to throw “eight the hard way”, a pair of fours. If you roll eight any other way – five and three, six and two – you lose. Of course it’s very difficult to roll a pair of fours on demand, so if all you play is the hard eight, you’ll go broke in short order, chasing the tiny chance of a huge victory. Hard Eight is about four characters chasing the same awful odds.
The story behind the film is that Anderson watched the 1988 action-comedy Midnight Run, which has the veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall in a small role as a mob lawyer named Sydney, and said, “I want to make a movie about that guy.” So in Hard Eight, Hall plays Sydney, an aging Reno resident who takes a struggling young man named John (John C. Reilly) under his wing. Even after Sydney has gotten him out of his most desperate place, John gets mixed up with a crooked “security consultant” named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cocktail waitress turned prostitute, in ways that Sydney could not even imagine.
It’s amazing, the degree of talent that Anderson was able to attract to this film. The film was shot before Pulp Fiction and Emma became huge hits, but it was still known that Jackson and Paltrow were rising stars. The same went for the talent Anderson brought behind the camera, such as cinematographer Robert Elswit and music director Jon Brion, both of whom would see their stars rise exponentially thanks to their work with Anderson.
The reason that he was able to do so is because he had an unbelievable grasp of filmmaking for one so young. Every single shot in this film has something important to say, either for the plot or for these characters. The Steadicam shots, such as the one following Sydney across the floor to show how he rules the roost in his favorite casino, may evoke Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese never wrote dialogue so sharp as this.
Similarly, other directors might have conceived of characters like John and Clementine, but no one would have had the guts to make them both so unlikeable. Both are set up from their first scenes as childish and immature, to the point that Sydney is a father to them by default. But, like most children, there comes a point where they become frustrating and even infuriating with their disobedience. During the big scene when John and Clemetine reveal that they’ve done some things that Sydney can’t use his money to make disappear, some Movie Klubbers were heard to scoff at how foolish the two younger characters were being with their plans. That scoffing is not a symbol of bad writing or bad acting. It is, in fact, the whole point.
Maybe the most telling moment in the film is a tiny one. Sydney and Clementine are having a cup of coffe in a diner, when an argument between a couple in the background suddenly explodes into the shout, “Fuck this, I’m outta here!” Paltrow’s bemused reaction says it all: as much drama as is going on in her own life – as much drama as we’ll soon see in the movie – she thinks it’s not as bad as the guy who lets his issues boil over in public. She just wants to keep her dark secrets to herself, and the rest of the film is about Sydney trying to do the exact same thing.
Gambling is a big aspect in this film, including one scene in which Sydney is challenged across a craps table by a young buck played by a pre-fame Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sydney is sometimes an aggressive gambler who makes “big balls” bets, but all of the biggest bet he makes – all of his plays on the hard eight – are losers. He works best just trying to grind out a living, getting over on the casinos bit by bit, as he teaches John to do.
So what are we to make of all of his risky plays in the lives of John, Clementine, and Jimmy? Should we think that any of the chances Sydney takes could possibly work out? As with all of Anderson’s films, there is no clear answer. John and Clementine are such screwed-up people that, even if they end the film in a good place, it’s hard to see them living happily for too long. And the idea that Sydney can just walk away from the crime he commits at the climax of the picture … it’s possible, but seems unlikely.
Anderson’s point is not a happy ending for these various characters. He’s interested in what makes all of them – and especially Sydney – make those aggressive, wildly risky bets in their own lives. John and Clementine might do it because they’re too immature to know better, and Jimmy might do it out of hunger for money or respect. But in an incredible final scene, Anderson leaves the answer about Sydney’s motivations to the viewer. That’s what all the great directors do; the amazing thing is that Anderson could do it so well in his first film.
Reviewed by Mark Young