The good thing about trying to write about Hard Eight is that I can mostly just link to Sunil Patel’s excellent Year of the Month essay on it and call it a day–except that technically only covers seven minutes, so I still have to say something.
Hard Eight, like a roll of the dice, doesn’t tumble in any direction you can easily predict. For the first part of the movie, Paul Thomas Anderson tempts you into a kind of guessing game, one where Philip Baker Hall’s weary, gentlemanly Sydney–a kind of veteran statesman of a professional gambler–could easily be either a con artist looking for a mark or an aging man looking for a protege. Danger hums around the edges of Hard Eight, and it feels like someone must be a victim here. The movie’s world is too flashy and harsh–Philip Seymour Hoffman’s crass, loud craps player seems to personify it almost as much as Samuel L. Jackson’s amoral, opportunistic Jimmy–and our protagonists all seem like they might be crumbling around the edges. In addition to Sydney, there’s John (John C. Reilly), a one-time rube who gets picked up off the sidewalk and turned into Sydney’s loyal right hand, and cocktail waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow, cast against type and acting all the better for it), who believes she’s accepted her small and slightly squalid life but doesn’t really know how to live it. Anything could happen.
If there’s a real weakness to Hard Eight, it’s that since anything could happen, what does happen feels almost arbitrary–but the characters’ luck coming down around them like a collapsing house of cards is admittedly appropriate. Criminal impulsiveness, criminal greed, and criminal history all tangle up here, with Sydney as the reluctant fixer of it all. With a little more glitz, it would be an entirely different movie, but John and Clementine’s quiet ordinariness and Sydney’s exhausted tragedy humanize it. It’s a story in the world of gambling, but it’s more about grinding along than getting ahead. Like a lot of P.T. Anderson films, it comes down to the struggle to find love and dignity and hold onto it in the face of an inimical world. It’s not as fine-tuned as his later work, but it still hits hard enough to bruise.