Hard Eight

"Never ignore a man's courtesy."

I’ve been reading Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice recently, partly because the upcoming Paul Thomas Anderson feature adaptation renewed my interest after I placed it on my ‘to read’ list a while back. Inherent Vice, set to be on our screens come late January 2015, will be Anderson’s 7th feature film. Unlike other directors Anderson doesn’t possess a mammoth portfolio in terms of quantity but his film making prowess has certainly carved a unique niche into the Hollywood market ever since his first short, Cigarettes and Coffee back in 1993.

Opening the door to the mundaneness of life Anderson exposes the regularity of human problems that other directors tend to sidetrack or dilute with witty dialogue or quirky editing. Anderson’s style is unique and an air of envy permeates through filmmaking circles because of his ability to navigate and transpose human emotions onto the screen. His first feature film Hard Eight holds a number of similarites with Cigarettes and Coffee and is in a way an extension of the inaugural short. Setting a number of trends in motion Philip Baker Hall (Sydney) befriends John C. Reilly (John), offering him a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and more importantly an opportunity to share his troubles and offer his assistance. When John reveals he travelled to Vegas to win money to pay for his Mother’s funeral Sydney is impressed and admires the intention but faults the logic. Offering John $50, a ride to Vegas and a chance to learn what he did wrong Sydney and John’s friendship begins, highlighted effortlessly by the rising theme and the homage to Cigarettes and Coffee.

In what would become the first of many troubled father-son relationships synonymous with Anderson’s films Sydney and John’s relationship is special. The casino is no stranger to cinema, featuring heavily in films that come before Hard Eight and used since, but these films only tend to hint at the pitfalls of gambling and rarely deliver the fatal blow that is loss. Although loss isn’t central to Hard Eight it doesn’t fall into the trap of producing your run of the mill casino movie either. It’s focus lies outside the timeless confines of the smokey casino floor and entertains intself instead with the individuals that are a part of the fluid social dynamic of a gambling town. Always one to avoid cliché Anderson goes the extra mile and makes a point of setting his tale of love, loss, and redemption in Reno, not Vegas.

Taking John under his wing Sydney introduces John to a con that cheats the casino system, gets him back on his feet and gives him a chance to start afresh. Fast forward two years and John has become a part of Sydney’s life, a responsibility, fully immersing himself in the guiding father role. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson in supporting roles as Clementine and Jimmy respectively, Reno comes into its own as a seedy casino town full of hustlers and sultry expressions reeking of regret and desperation. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his PTA debut in Hard Eight and the framing of this promising, if troubled, actor is profound in hindsight and marks one of the more sobering scenes of the film.This is where the film takes a turn. Clementine a cocktail waitress and moonlighting prostitute sees no future, just an unbreakable cycle of work, eat, sleep. Jimmy figures as an important member of the security personnel at a local casino, taking offence at Sydney’s ‘parking lot’ assumption Jimmy is quick to affirm his status.

The film’s direction isn’t necessairly clear from the get go but for good reason. Sydney and John’s burgeoning relationship is more often than not one of guidance. John and Clementine engage in natural and mutual affection for one another. While Jimmy gradually fades from the scene until one defining moment draws them all together in what can only be described as a *messed* up situation committed by severe misjudgment. Refusing to grant the casino the limelight once again Anderson sets this misguided situation away from the gambling scene, a sort of behind closed doors scenario alluding to a grittier reality hiding in plain sight.

The final third of Hard Eight reveals Sydney’s history perfectly and the rest of the film comes into focus. Rounding off another Anderson trope, that of the “psychologies of enigmatic leading men” (Landon Palmer, from FilmSchoolRejects) and beginning a new one, that of clear and concise closure leading to another chapter that needs no sequel or explanation. This is where we come full circle. With Hard Eight starting and finishing in a roadside café Anderson’s films really do feel like an extension of someone’s story, a story that would be told over cigarettes and coffee. Firmly establishing himself as a true auteur Hard Eight marks a Brilliant promising feature debut from Anderson with plenty left in the tank for Boogie Nights to develop. Certainly a grower and while I become accustomed to Anderson’s style before Inherent Vice is released I may revise my rating upon a second viewing but for now…

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