My Alejandro González Iñárritu retrospective did not go as planned; I only made it halfway through his filmography before Birdman was released. I have resolved not to make the same miscalculation with Paul Thomas Anderson before his latest film, Inherent Vice, hits theaters. So despite the fact that that movie doesn’t come out until mid-December, my new review series starts tonight, with one of the two Anderson films I had not seen: 1996’s Hard Eight.
Anderson (much like his unrelated similarly-named contemporary, Wes) is one of the more prominent American auteurs actively working in the industry. I have not formed a concrete connection with all of his movies, but I look forward to revisiting them. Anderson (or “PTA” for the cool kids) has a uniquely present approach to filmmaking; his movies are less concerned with story than they are with the world around them.
His first movie – originally titled Sydney – stars Philip Baker Hall as (get this) Sydney, a stoic and thoughtful gambler in his 60’s moving through his life with little aim. Sydney encounters John (John C. Reilly), a young man who met with a bit of bad luck in Las Vegas. Sydney takes John under his wing, and the younger man eventually becomes his protegé. They carve out a sufficient existence in Reno, forging relationships with a waitress, Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow), and a security guard, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). It is not long, however, before these disparate personalities pull Sydney right into the trouble he tries so hard to avoid. The kind of trouble he has been in before.
There is a lot in this film that points toward the filmmaker PTA will become. The cinematography by Robert Elswit is encompassing of the setting without distancing the audience from the characters. PTA and his editor here, Barbara Tulliver) also cut creatively (during the car ride to Las Vegas in the opening and Clementine’s fidgety nervousness in the hotel room) and efficiently (leaving out unnecessary moments and allowing the audience to catch up).
These technical aspects are the pieces PTA will improve upon even more in the coming years, as is the loose feel of Hard Eight‘s first half. The audience spends most of this time getting to know the characters and their surroundings. Then the plot barges in unannounced and the tone shifts completely. The movie becomes so preoccupied with resolving narrative threads that didn’t exist moments earlier, that the atmosphere PTA spent so long establishing shatters. This focus on the storyline will go away as PTA matures, and it is an understandable move for the first-time feature director.
Paul Thomas Anderson was 26 when Hard Eight was released, and there are already huge indicators of the direction he will move in as an artist, down to the stable of actors he employs. Hall and Reilly go on to be regulars throughout PTA’s career, as does the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appears briefly in Hard Eight during the early Jack-Black-impression phase of his career. Despite some poorly sketched character moments, these gifted actors saw something special in the young director, as should most viewers. Hard Eight is a confident-if-flawed debut, and things only go up from here.