“Hard Eight”, originally titled “Sidney”, is the first movie of Paul Thomas Anderson, the director known to the movie lovers for “Master”, “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood”. Some critics call him the greatest director of his generation and one of the most important directors in the early 21st century. They’re probably right, and “Hard Eight” in many ways shows us what will PTA become in the movie industry.
As the plot is concerned, “Hard Eight” is a very simple movie. The main character, Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), is the old gambler who in many ways reminds us of similar roles of Eddie Felson (“Hustler”) or Henry Gondorff (“The Sting”), which are both played by Paul Newman. In front of a cafe Sydney meets a young, hopeless man sitting on the stairs. He offers help. John (John C. Riley) accepts which puts in motion a series of events which made them to end up in situations that are remarkable and sometimes pretty weird. First half of the movie is much better than the second, because the consequences of the choices they’ve made started surrealist spiral of the characters (great performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow) and events that somehow become very similar to “Wild At Heart” by David Lynch. Conflict of Sydney, as a paternal, patron character and John as a simpleton is comical and as the film goes to the end – unnecessary. Plot and storytelling are not the upsides of the “Hard Eight”. Acting, especially the performance of Phillip Hall, Baker, Samuel L. Jackson and brief but memorable role of the unfortunate late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is. Acting and direction are good enough reasons to give this movie higher rating and better reception than it has.
The second main downside is the acting of John C. Reilly, who is definitely not the right choice for the part. The act of simpleton in this movie would be better if it was played by some other, more charismatic actor. Shortcuts and the editing tricks PTA used in this movie can give us some insight in retrospective of how big director he will become. The brief role of Phillip Seymour Hoffman which in “King Of Porn”, “Magnolia” and “Master” gave some of his best performances is just a start of what will become one of the partnership with most fruitful performances from the actor and from the director respectfully. Phillip Baker Hall and Seymour Hoffman were PTA’s trade-mark actors. In “Hard Eight” we can see the sparkle of the great director and some great acting performances. Storytelling is maybe incoherent and weak, but all the other key elements of the film-making are very good, and having in mind that the “Hard Eight” is a debut movie, the excellent grade is not overrated.
There are many reasons for watching this movie and aside from the mentioned downsides, upsides were enough to pronounce it one of the best debuts in the past twenty years.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best directors today. His debut movie is worth watching in retrospective because of all the signs of the future genius are already presented in it.