The screen is black and the opening credits begin. The first thing we hear is a dirge called Clementine’s Loop, composed by Jon Brion. The mood it pitches is stark and foreboding. The audience is immediately keyed in to the notion that the next 102 minutes will probably not be a reflection of the life-affirming highlights of the characters’ lives.
When the image comes up, we’re outside a Denny’s. Well, a reconverted Denny’s. The world of Hard Eight is one of unshakable reputations; it can say Ray’s Cafe on the sign but it’s still a Denny’s that has been broken down, sold off, and is quietly functioning in its new skin. Walking towards this cafe is Sydney, a shadowy, yet direct man who, seemingly at random, offers to buy a poor stranded soul named John a cup of coffee.
It seems appropriate to note that, once upon a time, Peter Yates directed Robert Mitchum in a film called the Friends of Eddie Coyle which was not too dissimilar from Hard Eight. Set in the less-cinematic parts of Boston, that film chronicled the lives of the lowest-level functionaries in the organized crime business; bottom feeders who would feed on each other if need be. And in that film, everyone spoke with a clarity that ensured that whoever was listening understood what was said and what was not being said.
Hard Eight is very much like this world. In the earlier film, Robert Mitchum got to put the fear of God into a hot shot gunrunner by explaining why you never ask a man why he’s in a hurry. In Hard Eight, Sydney helpfully reminds John never to ignore a man’s courtesy. In both scenes, the veteran looks dog-tired and slow but you never once doubt his wisdom and respect the commanding way he delivers it.
In Hard Eight, Sydney is played by Philip Baker Hall and John is played by John C. Reilly. During the course of the opening scene, we will learn just enough about each character to want to tag along with them; Sydney is a well-dressed, professional gambler and John is a sweetly dim loser who only wants to win enough money in Vegas to pay for his mom’s funeral. Fifteen minutes into the film, we’re hanging on Sydney’s every word and John’s receptiveness to them. By the time sad-eyed cocktail waitress-cum-prostitute Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow) and reptilian casino security manager Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) are added to the mix, we slowly begin to see the ingredients of disaster come together and, like John, we look to Sydney for his guidance and trust his every movement. For there’s no doubt he’s seen disaster before.
What’s most astonishing about the debut film of Paul Thomas Anderson is how subdued it is, Made by a young man of 26, Anderson refuses to fall into the trap that 99% of nascent filmmakers do which dictates that one must be as flashy as possible by jamming in as many cinematic references and tricks that they can. In his first time out as a filmmaker, Anderson shows a real maturity in his restraint and his ability to approach material correctly and there is an amazing wisdom in the dialogue.
The film’s setting is interesting, too. Like Robert Altman’s California Split, Hard Eight takes place in the unglamorous world of daytime nightlife. Garish hotel rooms, eerily desolate roads, and the sparse, Wednesday afternoon crowd in dumpy Reno casinos are all writ large on cinematographer Robert Elswit’s wide canvas. And John Brion’s Hammond B3-laced score injects the right amount of lounge-lizard sleaze into the atmosphere. The characters and plot, a potent blend of a Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, and an Elmore Leonard novel, mix with its harsh, cinematic world in such a way that you can smell the stale cigarette smoke on every frame of film.
To achieve this, a film has to be extraordinarily observant and meticulous in its details. Take, for instance, a scene in which Clementine, who has to leave town with John in a hurry, gives Sydney instructions for feeding her cats and how to unlock her apartment door with a key ring we never see, but can hear is ridiculously overloaded with keys and trinkets. It’s not played for laughs and it doesn’t even call attention to itself. It’s simply a detail that serves as a reminder that Anderson knows characters like Clementine; someone who sadly, and in the name of basic survival, gives so much of herself away that overloading her keychain with goofy charms and ephemera seems like one of the few remaining frontiers of self-expression and individuality.
As well-realized its world and well-written its dialogue, Hard Eight is, above all, an actor’s film.
Philip Baker Hall, an actor who before Hard Eight was mostly known as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Secret Honor, got one of the biggest gifts from the gods with a role for the ages. Stoic and precise, Hall gets the immense actor’s pleasure of both being able to express himself with his stoney face and the right to spit hot-fire lines of dialogue like “You know the first thing they should have taught you you at hooker school? You get the money up front.” It’s a performance of masterful skill, immense control, and sheer perfection. I’ll fight the man, woman, or child that disagrees.
John C. Reilly can never get enough credit and is one of the finest character actors working today. In Hard Eight, he turns in one of his greatest performances as a truly pitiful lug who needs a hug and an emotional anchor. While Hall is tasked with the heavy lifting during the scenes of severe gravity, Reilly gets a few astonishing moments of emotional counterbalance, most especially during a telephone conversation in a key scene in the film’s third act. Also bringing the lumber is Gwenyth Paltrow who summons up the depressing cheapness that runs through her character while also making her vulnerable and human. It helps that her character is the hooker with a heart of despair and loneliness, not gold and half of the time her smeared lipstick makes her look like a clown that escaped a black velvet painting.
Fourth-billed Samuel L. Jackson brings fire to the film as the charismatic yet crudely loathsome security manager who knows everything that goes on in, and out, of the casino. With his wide grin, his maroon leather jacket, and his driving gloves, Jimmy is a study in someone who wouldn’t know class if he fell into it, yet is supremely lethal and projects a menace that, once he’s introduced, hangs like a pall over every remaining second of the film.
Looking back on how Hard Eight was marketed, it must be said that the trailer for the film is ridiculous. Obviously cut to capitalize on the then-red hot Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino vibe, the film was marketed as a explosive fire of witty banter, cool Vegas shenanigans, and gritty gangster action. To give the film more of that post-Rat Pack fetish vibe that washed all over indie cinema in the mid to late 90’s, the trailer assigns face-card titles to the characters (Gwenyth Paltrow is the Queen!). That the film had none of the aforementioned elements probably surprised the few that were able to overcome the distributor’s shameful mismanagement and see it in a theater. For some, the surprise was likely a let down. Regardless of quality, there was an audience that ate up every single post-Pulp Fiction-ish film indiscriminately. This, by the way, is how the noxious Boondock Saints, the Sublime of the Pulp Fiction wannabes, ever became the hot property it did. If a film didn’t have that same pop, slash, and burn, it was chucked as boring. And Hard Eight doesn’t have that pop. Despite the use of a quick pan here or there and one tremendous tracking shot of Sydney moving like a shark across the casino floor, the film’s dynamism comes solely and bravely in its silences and what it doesn’t say. The electricity it emits is a slow burning charge that feels confident.
But, finally, Tarantino fashioned the mood of Pulp Fiction after those deliciously chosen pop tunes, Anderson fashioned Hard Eight after a Tom Waits song; a broken boulevard of heartache and misery where, after an evening of carnage, one can merely adjust their coat sleeve to cover up the bloodstains and move about their day unmolested.