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hard eight posterSometimes the work of a particular director needs to grow on you and you don’t quite feel their first effort or two. I can honestly say that was not the case with Paul Thomas Anderson first effort, Hard Eight. A tightly compacted film despite taking place in cities like Las Vegas and Reno, Hard Eight chronicles the evolution of the relationship between two men, Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) and John (John C. Reilly).

Hard Eight - Opening

Sydney happens upon John outside of a diner…and our story begins.

The film opens with John sitting, dejected outside of a diner when Sydney, who is going into the diner, stops to ask him if he wants a cigarette, if he wants a cup of coffee. When they get inside and get to talking, John confesses has has no money and needs $6,000 to pay for his mother’s funeral. Touched and confused by John’s actions, Sydney decides to help John out. When he takes him back to Vegas, he shows him how to milk the system, circulating the same money to make it look like he’s a big spender. When he gets comped a room for the night and hits a mini-jackpot on the slots, John thinks he’s stumbled onto something. Sydney quickly quashes those thoughts, but offers John help to get his mother buried.

Sydney watching over John.

Sydney watching over John showing him the ropes.

Cut to two years later…

The two men are still together, although they are in Reno now –  John, the faithful puppy dog to Sydney’s alpha. There are two new players in the story now – the apple of John’s eye, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and John’s friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), both of whom play major roles in the story as it moves along.

Jimmy and John, an odd couple.

Jimmy and John, an odd couple.

It’s clear that John and Clementine have feelings for one another and Sydney does all he can to push the two of them together. When the two do end up getting together, an unexpected turn of events ends up changing the entire dynamic of all people involved. When Jimmy confronts Sydney about something from his past, another situation arises that further threatens the co-existence of all players.

Clementine, the wolf in a cocktail waitress' clothing.

Clementine, the wolf in a cocktail waitress’ clothing.

I might argue that this is one of the best first films of any director in the past 20 years. The characters are few so Anderson was able to concentrate on building them, giving them many layers and throwing in some narrative twists that always keep you guessing as to what will happen and what are the characters’ motivations. This film firmly cemented Reilly and Hall as players in Anderson‘s company of actors. Both appeared in Boogie Nights as well as Magnolia. Perhaps the best appearance is that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose short cameo is definitely memorable, and also helped establish him as Anderson‘s go-to guy, having appeared in every film he’s made except for There Will Be Blood. Here it is:

This was the beginning of a beautiful and fruitful relationship between Anderson and Hoffman which came full circle with the outfuckingstanding performance Hoffman gave in The Master.I have always remembered this scene with great fondness.

Hey Big Time...I'll buy you a drink

Hey Big Time…I’ll buy you a drink

This is a film I’ve always been able to watch over and over. There’s so much in it and it shows where Anderson began as a writer and director. His Max Ophülsinfluenced camera moves are on full display here and this is the place one should start when tackling Anderson‘s work. I can’t speak highly enough of this film. So get there, people, and check it out.

This film streams on Netflix, YouTube, iTunes and is also on Amazon (and is free if you have a Prime membership).

Here’s the trailer: