Throughout the 1990s, there was such a strange influx in gangster, crime and casino-oriented films. I blame Martin Scorsese for this decade long trend. He piloted this odd niche, crafting Goodfellas and Casino within five years of each other. Other directors attempted to latch onto this success, and newcomer Paul Thomas Anderson was one of them. In his directorial debut, Hard Eight, we’re thrown into a tepid relationship between a down on his luck casino player and one stranger who looks to pull him out of the dark and build him as his protégé. It’s an interesting premise that never quite takes flight.
It’s very nice to see Philip Baker Hall get some prime time in a leading role, but outside of that strange anomaly, he doesn’t seem to have received all that many large or interesting roles. He holds his own throughout Hard Eight, a superb, spotlight-stealing performance as Sydney Brown not only sets the plot off in the right direction but generally feels like the best performance in the film. The first of a handful of collaborations between Hall and Anderson, it’s clear even from the early stages of the film that their chemistry with one another is invaluable to the style of the movie. Hall somehow manages to outshine the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reily and Samuel L. Jackson in a film that provides solid yet forgettable performances for the rest of its cast.
Reily, in particular, isn’t much use, and I’ve often found that his earlier performances aren’t always that interesting. His role as John Finnegan doesn’t feel like it’s fleshed out enough, he’s not all that interesting in the first place, and to top it all off, this is early Reilly doing still trying to find solid ground in what he wants his performances to represent. He still showcases himself as an odd goofball, even if that’s the exact opposite of what the role requires. It’s stupendous to see how he evolved as an actor though, starring in Boogie Nights the following year and bringing something tremendously different to the table.
Solid performances manage to keep the film treading water, and if there were some more exciting scenes or thoughtful pacing then this would’ve been a tremendous piece of film. Anderson’s direction lacks confidence here, with the same few shot compositions utilised throughout the entire running time. No scene picks up on his style, although to give credit where it’s due, the hallmarks of his writing are present rather feverishly in Sydney and the other characters he crafts within this world.
A part of me had expected something much more from Anderson, but we can’t always knock it out of the park on our first try. Stepping up to the plate for the first time, Anderson delivers a conforming, shaky and at times boring film. But Hard Eight survives thanks to the tireless efforts of its lead performer, and serves as a nice memento to how Anderson developed his craft over decades of hard work.