I’m going to review all of P.T. Anderson’s oeuvre over the upcoming weeks.
One of the many gifts film can give us in a view in a new world. Not just the lives of dragons and aliens but also the world of ballerinas, reporters, and circus clowns. Even the mundane details of their lives can be fascinating when placed in front of a camera. The small touches can be more captivating than any melodrama. P.T. Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight capture these small touches in its first half with a character story of Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), a gambler who rarely gambles.
Hall runs into a down-on-his-luck John (John Reilly) sitting outside a diner in Nevada. Sydney takes a quick measure of the kid and offers to buy him a coffee and to hear his troubles. Learning John needs money to bury his mother, Hall offers a ride to Las Vegas and 50 dollars. His motives for these charitable actions remain mysterious until the third act and Reilly doesn’t know what to expect from this oddly direct man. Instead we learn the tricks of the gambling trade, watching Sydney explain to John how you can get a free hotel room through a simple con. The rest of the movie shows how Sydney’s wisdom made him the current sage he is and how it can not help him in the affairs of the young.
Sydney does not seem to be one of the Las Vegas crowd, he’s neither energetic nor seedy and Anderson underscores this rather well- this is the least energetic takes on Las Vegas and Reno put to film. When Jimmy (Samuel Jackson, an early performance showing the way for roles like Ordell in Jackie Brown) arrives in the 2nd Act, he’s all seedy and energetic. Understandably, John is attracted to him (it’s what attracted him to Las Vegas in the first place) and Sydney takes an instant dislike. The difference between Sydney being goaded into making a bet and Jackson’s turn at craps after he gets $6,000 is the joy between a professional and an amateur between someone who does someone for fun and someone who must make a living. The long tracking shot of Hall going through the casino compared to say, Robert de Niro walking around in Casino. Both are commanding characters but while de Niro is surrounded by noise, color, and rowdies; Sydney is so set apart from the Casino floor he could walk through the tables. Trouble only starts when he creates a family for himself (his real family stopped talking to him a long time ago) with John and a cocktail waitress/Prostitute Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). When the couple marries, kidnaps one of Clementine’s john so they could get his money, and then have to run out of town all of Sydney’s frustrations start pouring out. He did not plan for this and all Sydney trusts is planning.
A man trying to find control on the craps table is naturally inclined to find domination over people. Both Sydney’s relationship with John and Clementine is based on his ability to influence. John becomes his disciple because of Sydney’s charisma. Hall’s performance shows a man with a natural command (Clementine nicknames him “the captain”). Each line seems forethought went behind it even when none should naturally come. Even when fearfully begging for his life Hall diction is strong, clear, and concise. When you get angry or panic, you lose. Sydney has learned this lesson well. From this description, you might think Sydney is very one-note but Hall creates a character whose diction might not change but the emotions underpinning the dialogue does. His look of anguish at Ordell is much different than when he’s in the hotel room with John and Clementine.
When he tells John he loves him like a son, there’s finally acceptance on Sydney’s part on his role in the world. He cannot control the young couple’s future. It’s not that the student has overcome the master but that the student could never really become the master. His influence might still be there but that cannot be mistaken for being the puppet master. Instead, he can only give the best advice he can to John and hope it turns out for the best. Sydney has simply stopped looking for the hard eight in life.