In the end it’s got all the trappings of a low-rent Hollywood B movie that bypasses the clichés to create something original.
“Hard Eight’s” main draw is a lead performance by an actor whose face everyone will recognize. He’s “that guy” we’ve seen pop up in supporting roles for decades but whose name few ever cared to learn.
Philip Baker Hall has a face, a tone, a walk that tells a story. To say he’s brilliant or perfect or any other overused adjective in “Hard Eight” would be an understatement.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson provides Hall with a one-of-a-kind role in “Hard Eight.” Hall is a man with a past we only glimpse through dialogue and sharp looks. He speaks clearly and acts assuredly. He’s the kind of person you’d meet through a friend and wonder about for years after.
Hall plays Sydney, a resident of Reno, Nevada. He’s an old man who carries his mistakes and never says something he hasn’t thought through. He spends his days grinding his way out in casinos and in bars using gimmicks he’s learned over the years to make a buck.
DID YOU KNOW: Philip Baker Hall credits an appearance on the 1970s sitcom “Good Times” for giving his fledgling career some momentum.
The film opens with him meeting a young man named John (John C. Reilly). John is sulking outside of a diner when Sydney offers him coffee and a cigarette. After a great exchange of dialogue (a real talent of Anderson’s), Sydney offers to show Reilly some tricks to live like he does. He’ll be both a mentor and father figure. It’s the kind of offer that only exists in the movies, the kind many young men wish would come along.
Soon John and Sydney are grinding their lives out in Reno. John is a little less confident and serious than Sydney which leads to trouble. That trouble is better left as a surprise. None of it matters anyway. This movie, like most Anderson flicks, is less about plot and more about characters and mood.
Supporting actors Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson are all strong here, providing great and varying contrasts to Hall. Hall is given signature moments to shine. They are all genuine, although some are very small that other actors would get lost in.
Anderson’s first film suffers from mistakes any young filmmakers might make. The script reveals far too much in the last act, for starters. It’s still a deeply interesting film that showcases Anderson’s talent even in his early years.
He creates characters we only get to scratch the surface of, but who all feel real and rounded. He makes a character of the city, too, with his gloomy lighting and long tracking shots through seedy motels and casinos.
“Hard Eight’s” main attraction is obviously Hall. It’s a wonderful benefit that the rest of the movie is often as rich and powerful as its lead actor.