Hard Eight (1996) starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, F. William Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman directed by Paul Thomas Anderson Movie Review

Hard Eight (1996)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Philip Baker Hall as Sydney in Hard Eight (1996) (aka: Sydney)

My Darling Clementine

As directorial debuts go I think Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight" or "Sydney" as it is also known is one of the best I have ever seen. From the minute we meet the mysterious Sydney, calm, cool, kind but with an edge of danger we are gripped because for the simple fact he is intriguing. It is why we watch, we want to know what Sydney's story is, why he wants to help a young man and is kind to a waitress and as we watch we get the bonus of Anderson's stunning styling which makes "Hard Eight" a movie which is not just decent, not just good but special.

Sitting on the floor outside a diner, John (John C. Reilly - The River Wild) is approached by the well dressed Sydney (Philip Baker Hall - In Good Company) who offers to buy him a coffee and give him a smoke. Sceptical of what this older man's ulterior motives are they end up going back to Vegas where John lost his money and Sydney teaches him not only how to make money but get free stuff from the casino. Two years on and John and Sydney are still together with John learning much from Sydney but that all goes wrong when Sydney introduces John to waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow).

John C. Reilly as John in Hard Eight (1996) (aka: Sydney)

There are 3 things which make "Hard Eight" so special and they are mystery, style and casting. Ironically I didn't say story because the story is the mystery as to who Sydney is, this intriguing older man who is smartly dressed and is as cool as a cucumber. We watch as for no reason he offers to help John and are mind ticks over, is he on the pick up but that is soon disproved and it just makes us more intrigued as to who this man is who shows John how to make money off of the slot machines. That mystery thickens when two years after that initial meeting we have Sydney being kind to Clementine a waitress, is he about to do the same thing again, help a poor waitress out or is there some ulterior motive. And here is the good thing as when we learn why it's not some limp reason, not something obvious but a clever twist which makes it all make sense.

So we have this mystery and whilst Paul Thomas Anderson who both wrote and directed deserves the majority of the credit Philip Baker Hall deserves the rest. Not being disrespectful to John C. Reilly as John, Gwyneth Paltrow as Clementine or Samuel L. Jackson as a security man called Jimmy because they all deliver brilliant performances and deliver characters which are interesting. But the way Philip Baker Hall moves through the movie, that air of danger and coolness makes him fascinating and just the way he looks smart but tired makes him intriguing. Basically Sydney becomes this character which you are half afraid off but then warm to in a fatherly way.

Now when I reviewed Anderson's follow up to this, "Boogie Nights" I mentioned a Martin Scorsese feel to his style and that influence is very present here in his debut. With some of the action taking place in a casino it has that same slick feel as Scorsese's "Casino" as the camera takes us around the slot machines or over a Craps table. But it is not Anderson just doing Scorsese because he adds his own touches to it, the scene where Sydney, John and Clementine end up in one room with trouble on their hands it feels very different, still stylish but not just Anderson imitating someone else. It means that rather than feeling like a directorial debut "Hard Eight" feels like it comes from someone who has been making movies for a while, it exudes that sort of confidence.

Now what is interesting is the title because Anderson wanted the movie to be called "Sydney" and in many ways that made more sense because this is a movie about the mysterious Sydney. But as this was his directorial debut and he had little control it is reported that the studio wanted to call it "Hard Eight" which gives it more of a gambling connotation but in truth not true to the actual story. Yet strangely it was probably the best thing which could have happened because "Hard Eight" is a more appealing title than "Sydney" and I am sure more people would have watched it because of that title than if it had been called "Sydney".

What this all boils down to is that whilst Paul Thomas Anderson has gone on to establish himself as one of the top directors his debut movie is well worth a watch. And trust me you will be as intrigued by "Hard Eight" or "Sydney" as I was because it is brilliant.