Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hard Eight (1996)

Happy January people! I went to see The Master the other day, Paul Thomas Anderson's new film. I have to say that I found it slightly disappointing. Sure it's a very theatrical film with an amazing feel for period and costume (all those amazing neck ties, suits and print dresses!) and unsurprisingly it's top heavy on the method acting and dialogue. However for all it's style, symbolism and cinematic flourishes I thought it was lacking a little in substance and intensity... a bit like one of Lancaster Dodd's overwrought speeches, full of colour, sound and fury but signifying a bit less than that.

It got me thinking about Anderson though and his movie trajectory. His films, although sharing similar themes, have changed so much over the years. They seem to be getting more and more extreme in style and substance which can only be a good thing. His previous film There Will Be Blood was a perfect marriage of passionate film making and original vision... helped a bit by Daniel Day Lewis. I guess that's why I was a bit disappointed with The Master. I just felt it didn't have a strong enough narrative or resolution, despite an interesting left-field approach.
Anyway with all this in mind I thought now would be a good chance to revisit Anderson's first feature Hard Eight, an engrossing tale of winners and losers set around the gambling halls of Vegas and Reno.

Drifter John is sitting destitute outside a diner on the outskirts of Las Vegas when old timer Sydney chances across him and offers him a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Over coffee it turns out that John has been trying to gamble his way to $6000 so that he can bury his mother, but only has $50 left for a stake. Sydney, apparently motiveless, offers to help John by lending him money and teaching him a few tricks of the trade in how to make a little stake go a long way. Suspicious at first, John slowly lets himself get taken under Sydney's wing and before long the pair are fast friends with Sydney taking a paternal role in the relationship.

Fast forward two years and John has followed Sydney to Reno where the pair are regular faces in the casinos. He's befriended by waitress Clementine and "security" man Jimmy who Sydney takes an instant dislike to. But events are about to spiral out of control as fatal flaws in all four characters are revealed.
The stunning opening sequence in the diner sets the tone for this intimate epic. The camera work and framing are on point as is the use of music, both soupy background FM schlock and then the louder sweeping horns as John makes his decision to take up Sydney's offer. Hard Eight, like all of Anderson's films, is a character piece first and foremost and a chance for the actors to flex their muscles with some meaty roles.
The main man here is Philip Baker Hall who proves integrity personified as old timer Sydney (an role written specifically for him). On the other side of the table is baby-faced John C Reilly as John, all boyish charm and puppy dog eyes. Supporting the two leads are Gwyneth Paltrow as the vulnerable Clementine and Samuel L Jackson as the sleazy and somewhat threatening Jimmy. Jackson obviously relishes playing the bad apple in this fool's paradise and there is always a sense of unease when he is on screen. Look out also for an entertaining cameo from Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as a drunk gambler trying to outwit Sydney at the crap table.
Anderson really has a feel for how people talk in certain situations and all the actors convincingly convey base emotions of fear, desire, love and hate with help of a great script. Indeed dialogue is king in most of the director's movies and here the scenery is fairly chewed up as the screenplay crackles off the screen. Coupled with the writing and first rate performances is Anderson's keen eye for a camera angle. He knows exactly how to use his lens, when to track, when to zoom, and when to stay put - all in service to the actors and the script. It makes Hard Eight a riveting film to watch.
Once in Vegas, Anderson's eye for realism doesn't let up. This is a Vegas with very little glitz or glamour, inhabited by characters going nowhere in some kind of ever decreasing gambling circle of hell. The Hangover it ain't. What we do have in abundance is a strong sense of morals between men, even in the face of some pretty immoral behaviour. Friendship, chivalry and selflessness are strong themes here, mostly personified by Sydney. From the outset Sydney comes across as a font of knowledge and good advice, proclaiming homespun pearls of wisdom like "Never ignore a man's courtesy." If Vegas is the wild west of gambling the Sydney is the old gunslinger rolling his last dice... obviously his old fashioned morals are set to be challenged by younger pups.
Sydney obviously sees himself as a father figure in this respect. Families, patriarchs and offspring are recurring themes in Anderson's films. Think of Jack Horner and Dirk in Boogie Nights or the fathers and sons/daughters in Magnolia who are haunted by their sins. Even Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love comes from an overbearing family of sisters.
Hard Eight has all the components of a late night movie - gambling, smoking, drinking, broken hearts, lost lives and dark secrets. The Hard Eight of the title refers to an ultimate impossible bet when shooting craps. A few characters go for it throughout the film, ironically the one who succeeds in winning on it ends up dead. Well Shackalaka-dooby-doo.
Watch Hard Eight here...