Film Review – Hard Eight (1996)

Title – Hard Eight (1996)

Director – Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love)

Cast – Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Plot – Old-time professional gambler Sydney (Hall) takes the down on his luck John (Reilly) under his wing as the two strike up a friendship and partnership that will see them prosper, prosperity that comes under threat when John meets beautiful waitress Clementine (Paltrow).

“Never ignore a man’s courtesy”

Review by Eddie on 07/07/2020

In the years following his debut effort (based off a short film he had made previously), American director Paul Thomas Anderson would go on to craft some of the best films of the modern era and earn his place amongst the all-time greats of the cinematic landscape.

Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread are all films that for various reasons could be considered classics, meticulously crafted efforts that could only come from the mind of a talented genius, a genius unafraid to push boundaries in his quest to achieve greatness in his chosen field.

The journey of Anderson is still alive and well today but over 24 years ago the journey started in a small way with the character driven Hard Eight, a film rarely spoken about and little seen but one that shows glimmers of the director that was to emerge in the aftermath of its small-scale release.

Teaming up with his eventual Magnolia/Boogie Nights stars Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Hard Eight see’s Anderson tackling the gambling scene as Hall’s mysterious elder statesman Sydney takes Reilly’s down on his luck John under his wing and guides him in ways in which he can come out on top in the gambling world, a situation that is seemingly going along well enough until Gwyneth Paltrow’s waitress Clementine and Samuel L. Jackson’s loud mouth Jimmy come into the picture.

There’s a lot of mystery in the film early on as we are left wondering why Sydney has randomly decided to spend time with John and how Sydney knows the ins and outs of cheating the system but they’re not questions Anderson is too interested in pursuing as Hard Eight takes a fairly strong change of direction around the half way mark when things in the lives of Sydney and John take a turn for the more chaotic.

Alongside soon to be regular D.O.P Robert Elswit (who would go onto achieve great things with There Will Be Blood, The Town and Nightcrawler), Hard Eight feels in many ways like an Anderson film with its long cuts, moody set pieces and flawed characters but it never takes us to any real places of interest as the initial intrigue we feel towards the story begins to dampen as we become aware of the more generic and expected nature of the film at hand.

During Hard Eight’s brief 90 minute run-time are some nice performances from Hall and Reilly in particular, while Anderson’s snarky dialogue is found in moments throughout the film but Hard Eight is the stereotypical debut film, one with ambition and aims but one not as refined or as smart as it thinks it is, an unpolished gem that offers only a foretaste of what’s to come from its creator.

Final Say – 

An interesting watch for Anderson fans, Hard Eight is far from a bad film but its a highly forgettable one, one that started out a filmography that has become anything but.

3 trays of coins out of 5 

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