Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature film (which he wrote and directed), was recently shown at the Mercury Cinema as part of their Cinémathéque: Aesthetic Master collection. It stars John C. Reilley as John, a down-on-his-luck man who Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), for some reason as yet unknown to the viewer, offers a cup of coffee and teaches him the tricks of his trade: gambling.
It might sound like one of those films where Sydney teaches his young disciple to count cards and shake the system for thousands and thousands of dollars before the climactic capture or fall, but it eschews this expectation. Hard Eight has a subtle plot, and focuses more on the ways the characters connect to one another. John looks to Sydney for approval and reassurance, as the man who gave him this new gift of life, and Sydney treats John as if he were his own son. It is not at first clear why Sydney cares so much for John, but it is eventually revealed that he is motivated by his own guilty past, and manipulates John’s life for the better as his own form of penance. As a result, when John falls in love with a casino waitress who also moonlights as a prostitute, Sydney is the one who John calls when things go south.
The film avoids the clichés that might be used to throw in some action or friction between the characters, such as when Sydney’s motives are revealed, and instead causes deeper character introspection without giving away all the answers to the audience. It only raises curiosity and interest in Sydney’s life before the film started, and what might happen once it has ended.
Anderson’s style of filming is unusual, particularly in a film with such ordinary themes, and this is what gives it its uniqueness. The camera often focuses not on the actors’ faces, where in any other film the audience is drawn to the emotions and micro-expressions that prove an actor’s worth, but on hands as they pick up a note and pause, or the back of a man as he walks away, so we have no idea what the character is thinking and we are left to our own deductions. This style suits the pace of the film, and Anderson’s use of a Steadicam means there are no quick changes between scenes or fast action shots.
It is a well written, well-developed film, particularly if you enjoy films for the characters rather than the plot. However, if you enjoy action and resolutions, Hard Eight is not for you.
Words by Amelia Hughes.
Thanks to Mercury Cinemas.