There are few directors who have masterminded such a ceaseless string of ambitious and visually brilliant films as Paul Thomas Anderson.
In a career that has spanned more than 15 years, Anderson has done for the American independent film what Christopher Nolan has for the blockbuster; namely to tear up the rulebook and treat audiences as the savvy, cine-literate group they largely are.
As well as directing two of the greatest films of the ’90s – 1997’s seminal Boogie Nights and its Robert Altman-esque follow-up Magnolia in 1999, Anderson has also been responsible for one of this century’s greatest cinematic achievements, his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Let’s also not forget his leftfield 2002 romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, without doubt Adam Sandler’s finest hour (which I appreciate may come across as damning the film with faint praise – it’s really good).
Big things invariably start with small beginnings and in Anderson’s case this was the little-seen Hard Eight.
Anderson emerged from that post-Tarantino/post-Sex, Lies and Videotape moment in the early ’90s when studios of all sizes were falling over themselves to buy up anything ‘indie’ and repackage it for the mainstream.
In Anderson’s case, his short film Cigarettes and Coffee played at the 1993 Sundance Festival and led to his being invited to hone his burgeoning craft at the Sundance filmmakers’ lab, a sort of Hogwarts for talented young directors. As well as being spotted by Sundance, Anderson had also popped up on the radar at Rysher Entertainment, which financed his first feature.
What Rysher giveth, it took away, however, and after Anderson completed the feature – originally titled Sydney – it took it upon itself to re-edit the film. Anderson kept hold of the working print of his original cut though and, after finding the $200,000 needed to finish the film, a subsequent screening at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and an agreement to rename it, Hard Eight made it onto the big screen. The fact it made only a small dent at the box office turned out to be irrelevant; Hard Eight proved a big hit critically and gave Anderson the calling card he needed to make Boogie Nights the following year.
Hard Eight follows Sydney, an aging, well-heeled loner who takes the down-at-heels John under his wing. John is penniless and on his way out of Las Vegas after failing to win the $6,000 he needs to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes pity on the beaten-down John and takes him back to Vegas to mentor him in the way of making money at the casino.
The film picks up two years later with Sydney still the teacher and John his eager pupil. With the absence of a father, a paternal bond has also been formed which comes in handy when a desperate John calls on Sydney to help him deal with a situation involving his new wife – waitress and prostitute Clementine.
The first thing to say about Hard Eight is that it features a fantastic cast, led by the brilliant Philip Baker Hall as Sydney. Anderson apparently wrote the part specifically for Hall, who had been drifting in the wilderness for a number of years and has since gone on to enjoy a successful career in his autumn years. Hall brings real gravitas to a part that requires subtle changes of character. Sydney is a man trying to make amends for a terrible decision in his past in the best way he can, but he’s not to be messed with, as Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) finds to his cost.
Equally good is John C Reilly as John. Reilly may now be best known for his comic roles, but his early career was made up almost exclusively with bit parts or dramatic roles. Hard Eight was as much Reilly’s calling card as it was Anderson’s and he uses his naturally doe-eyed persona to his full advantage in his portrayal of a character trying the best he can but who keeps making mistakes.
Gwyneth Paltrow also excels as Clementine. It’s a thankless role in some respects; the tart with a heart who falls for John and drags him into a situation they cannot deal with, but Paltrow doesn’t employ the aloofness that has marred some of her other performances here, instead making Clementine a damaged soul magnetised to the equally bruised John.
And let’s not forget Philip Seymour Hoffman in a small but notable cameo as an obnoxious craps player. He’s only on screen for a brief time, but Hoffman doesn’t need long to breathe life into his characters.
The influence of Martin Scorsese is all over the film (something acknowledged by Anderson), with sweeping tracking shots, dazzling visual flourishes and unusual editing style that he embraced even more fully in Boogie Nights. One criticism of the film is the use of music, which can feel a little over-bearing at times. Compared to There Will Be Blood‘s extraordinary soundtrack, Hard Eight feels a little cheap.
Hard Eight is nevertheless a fascinating first salvo in a superb directorial career (his latest, The Master is one of the most anticipated films of 2012) and an intriguing snapshot of the state of American independent cinema at the time (how many directors can boast such a top-notch cast with their first feature?). His is a star that is sure to burn brightly for many years to come.