Auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson has proven time and time again that he is one of the masters at creating moody character pieces. Hard Eight was his first film and we can clearly see the themes and motifs that would go on to dominate his later films.
The film’s cast do a fantastic job at making their unlikable characters both compelling and believable. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s obnoxious gambler steals the show.
Even though the film takes place in the high stakes world of Vegas gambling, the main narrative focus is on the character of Sydney, a man whose ruthlessness mirrors the cold nature of the city.
Sydney can be seen as a human representation of Vegas, with all its sense of facade and hidden brutality.
John C. Reilly is the perfect actor to play Sydney’s naive counterpart, John Finnegan, who gets sucked into the glitz before falling from grace. His loss of innocence is what gives the film its deep sense of tragedy.
Gwyneth Paltrow also deserves praise for her role as the prostitute who plays a major role in John’s transformation. The cast of this film each give impeccable performances that keep the audience engrossed in their world. Anderson’s sense of dialogue has a big part to play in this.
In the case of this movie it is the mood that takes the focus, not the plot. It is a character piece. The story line could be summed up in one sentence (which we won’t do here for the sake of spoilers). The film is a character focused piece where the emotions of the people involved take greater emphasis than what is actually happening on screen. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Some audiences may not know quite what to think of this movie. It has elements of a comedy genre film but certainly does not invite the viewer to laugh. The film has tragic elements but does not express concise and strong emotion. It is character driven but there is no clear meaning to the story.
The Film’s Legacy
A director’s debut film is rarely their best. If it was then they would not be very good filmmakers. Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker who continues to grow. It would be some years after Hard Eight that he reached the cinematic heights of There Will Be Blood and The Master.
Because of this audiences may overlook Hard Eight as a learning curve for the director. This is unfair as the film is clearly deserving of praise in it’s own right. It is a low key crime thriller that focuses more on the emotions of the characters than their actions. If Anderson had only made this film then it would be considered much more of a beloved classic. In reality his later films have overshadowed Hard Eight.
In order to truly appreciate this movie it is best to look at it in it’s own terms and not compare it to the Anderson films that would come later.