★★★★ / ★★★★
John (John C. Reilly) is sitting outside a diner with hands in his face when Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) comes up to him and offers coffee. John accepts and we learn that the reason why he looks so hopeless is because he lost all his money. John’s good intentions impresses Sydney. That is, John had wanted to win enough money so he can give his mother a proper funeral. Sydney, a man of experience, decides to teach John some tricks in exploiting the casino’s loopholes.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Hard Eight” may be a small film but it is equipped with big guns: a confident, fast-paced, and focused direction; a wonderful ear for dialogue; and characters who continually reveal layers of personalities and histories.
I expected the film to be about John because he is the protégé as well as the first person the camera fixates on. It turns out that while he remains an important figure in the storyline, it is really more about Sydney and how much he grows to love John like flesh and blood. To complicate the plot, right after Sydney teaches John the first lesson in outsmarting the casinos, the picture jumps two years forward. Not only are John and Sydney slightly different from the time we meet them, there are two new characters: Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), John’s sort-of girlfriend for two months, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), John’s friend that Sydney doesn’t particularly like.
We are expected to learn about the four and how their relationships change the dynamics of the situation. Hall delivers an incredible performance. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of my grandpa: tough, suave, mostly quiet but very capable of warmth and support. Every time he is on screen, I was drawn to him and he doesn’t have to say a word.
There is a scene in a shabby hotel room where panic-stricken Reilly and Paltrow are on the foreground yet I kept noticing Hall on the background, just standing there, completely calm, while his face is drowned in shadows. In each scene, I felt him observing and thinking what he might do next. He never becomes predictable.
In most movies that aim to tackle special relationships between a parent and his or her non-biological child, there comes an obligatory scene where the former tells the latter, “I love you like you’re my own.” I almost always roll my eyes or end up stifling a snicker. It has turned so cheesy, so passé. But not here. I completely bought the set-up and delivery. During that scene, I relished every emotion on Sydney and John’s faces, held my breath at every pause, and found it hard to swallow because I was so moved. The moment is earned.
“Hard Eight,” also known as “Sydney,” is a gem and I’m astounded that it’s Anderson’s first feature film. By the end, it accomplishes two things. 1) It kept me interested in what would happen next. 2) Somehow, I couldn’t think of one thing I would change to make it better.