Hard Eight

Philip Baker Hall in “Hard Eight.”

The man’s name his Sydney. He’s walking to a diner for some coffee when he sees the young man slouched outside against the wall. Sydney stops and watches. It takes awhile for the young man to look up. When he does, Sydney offers to buy him a cup of coffee and give him a cigarette. The young man agrees, and over coffee he tells Sydney about the situation he’s in. He’s gone to Vegas to win $6,000 so he can bury his mother, but he claims that he’s only broke even. Sydney tells him that he’ll take him back and show him a trick – how to get a free room and some food without spending much money. The young man tells him that he’s not gay, that’s he not going to be his sex slave or anything – that if Sydney tries anything he knows three types of karate – jujitsu, aikodo, and…regular karate. The young man eventually accepts the offer and learns the hotel trick. Then he watches Sydney play a few rounds at the tables and a black title card comes up and says: Two years later.

Hard Eight is an incredible film based on Philip Baker Hall’s performance alone. He portrays Sydney in precise, exact movements. The character is never rushed and never flustered. He always remains still and cool. It’s amazing to watch precisely what Hall does and understand why the young man John (John C. Reilly) idolizes him. He seems to know every answer, the ins and outs of gambling, and he always has a thick wad of cash. He doesn’t seem to enjoy anything – never breaking out into a smile – but he adores John and the waitress-moonlighting-as-a-prostitute Clementine (Gywneth Paltrow). It’s an understated performance that encapsulates Sydney’s character – he’s a consummate professional.

Of course, nothing in the professional gambling world ever runs smoothly. John and Clementine get themselves into a bind that Sydney is forced to clean up. A shady character named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) alludes that he has knowledge of a secret in Sydney’s past that could ruin his relationship with the young couple. And every time Sydney puts two grand on the hard eight at the craps table the dice never roll in his favour.

Hard Eight is a subdued film. There are twists and there is violence, but they aren’t used to disrupt or energize the film’s almost glacial pace. They’re just simply the cost of doing business in Sydney’s world, which he takes begrudgingly in between smoking cigarettes and laying bets. It’s the world-weary tone of the film that makes the pacing not only tolerable but fascinating. Stepping into Sydney’s world is an exercise of action in stillness.

Grade: B

Sidenote: I had never even heard of this film before I saw it at the video store I rent from, and couldn’t believe what a find it was – great actors, a great director (P.T. Anderson) and an incredible lead character. Certainly an overlooked gem.

One Response to Hard Eight

  1. mmonty86 says:

    This is my least favorite PTA film, but it’s a solid film no matter what. I love watching it from time to time just to see PTA’s trademarks blossoming.

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