Hard Eight

A solid and unpredictable debut from Paul Thomas Anderson (whose preferred title for the film is Sydney). John (John C. Reilly), a sad sack who needs money to give his mother a decent burial, is approached by the mysterious Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who offers to teach John the secrets of casino gambling in Vegas. A father-son relationship develops between young John and the much older Sydney, until a secret from the past threatens to shatter the arrangement. The plotting gets a tad contrived in the final act, with almost every character behaving desperately or stupidly, but this is still a smooth and compelling character study. Hall gives a riveting and almost immobile performance as a man who seems too wise and courtly to be true. The other stand-out turn is by Gwyneth Paltrow, who usually radiates intelligence as well as beauty; here she plays a cocktail waitress and prostitute without two brain cells to rub together. The effect is rather shocking — we expect her character to be smarter than she turns out to be. Paltrow is touching and effective anyway. Samuel L. Jackson also turns up as the flamboyant Jimmy, who works casino security and knows a lot of dirt. Also with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an obnoxious high-roller. Cinematography by Robert Elswit; score by Michael Penn and Jon Brion. Anderson’s next was Boogie Nights, released later the same year.

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