Last week the Somerville Theatre kicked off two fabulous summer-long retrospectives, one showcasing the films of Sam Peckinpah, the other featuring the complete films of Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve been an ardent fan of Anderson’s ever since I first saw Boogie Nights, so I couldn’t be more excited to revisit his films, half of which I’ve never before seen screened theatrically. (I’m even more excited that the Somerville Theatre will be showing all of them in 35mm prints, with The Master in 70mm.) But because I was out of town last Thursday I missed the first film of the series, Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney). I had only seen it once before, on cable TV circa 2000, and I think it was in pan-and-scan. And I don’t think I ever saw the ending. And I didn’t remember much about the beginning either.
Suffice it to say that I needed to revisit it. So I ended up renting it from Amazon OnDemand. Turns out that, as debuts go, Hard Eight is both sure-handed and uneven, confident and strong-willed in its vision but also not terribly original or imaginative about what that vision is. It is, in other words, a typical early work, a genre exercise in which we see a creative talent beginning to flex his muscles even as he’s not yet aware of where his strengths lie.
The film is a neo-noir drama set in Reno, where veteran gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) takes a down-on-his-luck kid (John C. Reilly) under his wing for reasons that are only made clear in the third act. The supporting cast is impressive: Gwyneth Paltrow turns up as a cocktail waitress who becomes a love interest for Reilly, and Samuel L. Jackson plays a heavy who butts heads with Sydney and ends up becoming the film’s villain. A young Philip Seymour Hoffman also has a scene-stealing bit part as a cocky loudmouth who taunts Sydney from the opposite end of a craps table. But Hard Eight is really designed as a showcase for Hall, the character actor who had previously appeared as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, directed by Robert Altman. (Anderson has named Altman, Scorsese, and Demme as the three main influences on his early films.) Hall’s Sydney is authoritative, mysterious, guarded, and curiously gentle. His paternal relationship with Reilly is the first of many ambiguous father-son relationships that will echo throughout the rest of Anderson’s filmography.
I’ve said before that plot is never been one of Anderson’s strengths, and Hard Eight is no exception. As soon as Anderson tries to create a dramatic situation for the characters to become embroiled in, the film begins to fall apart. While the first two thirds glide along on the dynamic interactions between the characters, all of whom are well acted and convincingly written, the last act feels contrived and perfunctory. As last year’s Inherent Vice also proves, storytelling is a problem that Anderson has yet to fully solve. But when everything else in his films is working, it’s a problem that you find yourself not minding, or even noticing.