Hard Eight Is A Wonderful Noir Thriller Driven Well By Its Characters

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A lot of times, movies about gambling, usually set in casinos, can be dark but in that brutish, action flick sort of way. There’s always some sort of link to a criminal underworld, but a lot of times it’s more cartoonish than grim, to the point of being cliched. Sometimes, however, the occasional film veers a little too deep into the dark end. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, a crime thriller movie from 1996, is one of those films; it’s right there in the noir descriptor, after all.

Hard Eight, named after a craps play in which both dice turn up fours, involves the story of old gambler Sydney (played by Philip Baker Hall), who finds a young man, John (played by a young John C. Reilly, in a role that doesn’t seem like any of the roles that made him famous in the mid-2000s), sitting outside a diner.

Sydney offers a cigarette and a cup of coffee, befriending him in a seeming act of pity. It turns out that John is out to raise some money to bury his mother, who had recently passed away; Sydney takes him under his wing and teaches him how to survive and hustle in the real world.

Two years pass since their meeting and John is better in life, making new friends and being attracted to cocktail waitress Clementine (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). Sydney learns that Clementine sidelines as a prostitute, but he tries to set her up with John.

One day, Sydney gets a panicked call from John, who along with Clementine is holding one of her customers hostage after he refuses to pay for sex. Sydney comes through to help the two, who he tells to escape out of town. The audience also learns that Sydney killed John’s father some time before the film’s events, which may explain why Sydney befriended John at the beginning of the movie. Sydney kills John’s friend Jimmy (played by Samuel L. Jackson; this movie is actually low-key loaded with stars), who knows the truth about Sydney, and the film ends with Sydney returning to the diner where he met John.

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Hard Eight is a movie that’s not unlike other modern ’80s and ’90s neo-noir films, like the previously reviewed House of Games. It’s a film that gets by on the strength of characterization of each main player, like all noir films should. The trailer already makes the first step in setting the entire mood of the film, with a moody cinematic jazz score that wouldn’t be out of place in the 1930s, when noir was in.

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Philip Baker Hall gives a magnetic performance as Sydney (fun fact: the film was originally going to be named after the protagonist), filling in a quiet but forceful elder actor slot that a guy like Bryan Cranston would be filling in movies and TV shows today. He’s suave, sure, and calm, especially when he teaches John all his tricks in hustling in casinos, even in the face of grave danger when Samuel L. Jackson’s Jimmy tries to expose him to John.

If I can only base my entire review of this movie on his portrayal of Sydney alone, I’d give this all the stars.

Luckily for him and Paul Thomas Anderson, the rest of the movie is so well-constructed that everything contributes to how good it is.

Everyone else in Hard Eight seems to be there just to complement the sheer intensity of the Sydney character. John is young, bumbling, naive, and foolish, and he provides a fine foil to the maturity of Sydney. Clementine counterbalances John’s naivete and is a more nuanced complement to Sydney, sort of being like the younger version of him more than John. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson’s Jimmy works best as the small but significant antagonist of the movie; never really taking up the whole role as the nemesis (John and Sydney are really just working against the hardships and cruelties of life), but stepping up when it’s his turn to provide tension to the story.

There is no caper, no big heist, no frantic chase in Hard Eight. There’s just the real world and real human beings living and operating and hustling in it. They may be good, they may be bad, but this film takes a close look at how each of them interact with it and doesn’t really pass its own judgment on how the characters go about their lives. It doesn’t skew Sydney as an evil murderer, John as an innocent young man corrupted, or Clementine as a shameful tramp. The film leaves everything, every little act to your review, letting you decide who is good and who is evil instead. And in the end, it’s not what the tale contains, but rather how it’s told. And Hard Eight is a pretty sexy movie for a story like this, even if it’s not immediately obvious.

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