Hard Eight shows early signs of Paul Thomas Anderson’s talent (review)

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Hard Eight, movie
Hard Eight: superb performances underpin Paul Thomas Anderson's first feature

When people talk about Paul Thomas Anderson (who is surely one of the best directors alive today) they think of There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, etc. All great films, most of which are worthy of the title ‘masterpiece’. Yet one film is invariably left unspoken of, and that is Hard Eight, his little-known, much-maligned first feature, which I’m told was riddled with studio interference.

I thought it was fantastic.

It tells a very simple tale in a very languid way: Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) is an old man who takes a young and destitute lad, John, (John C Reilly) under his wing. The slightly wonky opening sequence (which homages Pulp Fiction while paling in comparison to it) sets up the relationship between the two, as we see John’s initial scepticism fade and the two form a sort of bond. We sense that the two of them are lonely, and are both looking for something, for someone. Skip forward two years, and now John and Sydney are now permanent companions. John also might have fallen in love with a prostitute Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a friend of John’s called Jimmy (Samuel L Jackson) may or may not be bad news for all three of them. Sydney takes an immediate dislike, anyhow.

The relationships between the central trio, Sydney, John and Clementine is what drives this film forward, and this film is compelling for no other reason than that it presents these characters in a very human way and simply lets us observe them.

The dialogue is naturalistic, and the film takes a very real, absorbing tone because of it. One sequence halfway into the film, the turning point, sees a horrifying hostage situation in which all three become involved: this becomes a very thrilling set-piece because it’s the point at which we find that we care about the characters.

Already, also, there were signs of what PTA was to deliver us later on. There are some excellent long tracking shots scattered throughout, the angles are not afraid to go wide and panoramic. On the whole the film is nice to look at. It lacks the splendour of his later work, but that wouldn’t have worked here. This is a slow film, which takes its time, and the way in which it is shot reflects this.

One of the best things about this film was the acting, and on top of that was Hall’s superb performance as the mysterious Sydney. He is lonely, vulnerable, quiet, reserved, a little enigmatic and we suspect also a little dangerous. His past is cloudy and his motivations unclear until the final third, when his stolid façade slowly unravels.

Of course, detractors of the film argue it is too slow, with not enough action, but I imagine they were looking for a different kind of film. This is an ensemble character study first and foremost, and sometimes people don’t like watching that. They see people every day, and come to movies to see things you wouldn’t get in real life. This film thrills us instead by showing us something that could be real, and then expanding. It requires a level of emotional investment that is rarely given by most people, but pays off dividends when it is.

On the whole, this film is excellent. It doesn’t compare to PTA’s latter body of work, but it’s a different kind of film to those. I’m glad he expanded, because he couldn’t have carried on making this kind of film for the rest of his career. One most certainly was enough. But it’s a thrilling, fascinating, and unique debut that I wholly recommend to anyone with an open mind.