Hard Eight (1996)
It really is purely coincidence that I have caught a few Paul Thomas Anderson films recently. which are also considered part of a loose trilogy, which has only just been made aware to me. Of course this is an opinion I both respect and intrigued by. A trilogy I have watched in reverse, Magnolia (1999) first before watching Boogie Nights (1997) before watching Hard Eight (1996) the focus of this review. It would be hard to ignore that fact that the writer-director’s new film Inherent Vice (2014) and the other two films I have recently taken in, some comparison will come into this.
Being Thomas Anderson first feature film I can obviously see the foundation in his cast of actors which he uses for the first three films at least. And the beginning of a wonderful working relationship between the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who has only one scene with “old timer” Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) who is a hard character to fully understand at the start, taking under his wing a down and out guy John (John C. Reilly) sitting outside of cafe. A mysterious smartly dressed figures just on the edge of frame walks in and offers John money, a cigarette and a coffee. All this but why, why does he take this down on his luck guy, teach him how to play at casinos, to learn the systems without being caught, all this in the opening scenes. Lead by an actor who was practically an unknown before Anderson found him, raising him from TV to the big screen. An actor who would otherwise be a character or supporting actor is giving the job of leading this dialogue heavy film.
The pace of this film is bewildering, nothing is spared, spoken with confidence, if we want to know what is going on, we best pay attention to this lightning speed film. Having the pace that can only be replicated by Jackie Brown (1997) a year later. Jumping forward 2 years we find a few more characters, new location, a relationship has formed between Sydney and John, almost like partners working the casino network, except it’s not really that at all, blind us to what is really happening. Has John been taken in by Sydney? What we find is a gentlemen who is as wise as his years, wanting and demanding respect, a skill has learnt from somewhere in his past.
We meet a waitress Clementine an un-confident woman who wants to make something of herself, berating herself to male guest in order to get the tips she needs to save up. Similar characters are found in the form of both Julianne Moore who maturity to the vulnerable female role in the subsequent films. Her lack of confidence see her make both the best and worst decisions in her life as we see more of her. Whilst C. Reilly’s characters are pretty much the same, men wanting a better life for themselves, roles he’s not really had since meeting Will Ferrell.
What I have seen develop is the unique cinematography that sweeps across the scenes to reveal the complex people that we meet in these complex spaces. Seeing the wide open and usually empty worlds where they all find themselves, its all about the bigger picture in the small worlds that we are absorbed into. Along with the haunting soundtracks that build up the tension, the signature moments that are perfectly timed to indicate that a dramatic life changing moment is about to occur, something small that will alter the course of the film.
I personally find that two bookends of the “trilogy” more compelling, building up characters however many we find. Hard Eight is obviously more intimate as we have so few. Where as Magnolia is on another scale completely, a multifaceted beast that looks at the lives of seemingly unconnected lives over the course of a day that builds up into a crescendo of emotion as we move from one to another. Boogie Nights was more comedic to me as it explored pornography during the 1970’s, focusing on the actor Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). There are the complex characters, the industry that has it’s inevitable highs, before the smutty downfall.
Hard Eight is a little film that packs quite a punch, my review only scrapes the surface of what these three films are all about. The beginning of so much more, a cast that would be built up as the fins grew more ambitious. A more intimate film that explore the fragility of the character as they use each other in different ways. I only wish I could have seen these films in order, I have however seen the an early appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman showing glimmers of something special, taking on any character, big or small, making them memorable, getting his moment in The Master (2012) who owns the screen.