Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is walking into a small cafe and finds a stranger named John (John C. Reilly) sitting outside who is looking down and saddened. Sydney approaches John and offers him a cup of coffee and a cigarette, curious as to how John got to where he is. John explains that his mother recently died and he needs six-thousand dollars to pay for her funeral. John figured the best way to earn the cash was to visit a casino and play Twenty-One. Instead, John is now broke and depressed, plus he can’t even afford a meal or a bedroom for the night.
After hearing John out, Sydney sympathises and decides to help him out by giving him a second chance. Sydney offers John fifty dollars in cash to spend again at the casino. This time, however, Sydney starts to teach John a few tips on how to win money. After small amounts of training from Sydney, John can pay for a meal and a nice room for the night. Sydney and John develop a special father- son bond and John becomes his protege when it comes to earning big money from casinos.
While life for the two seems tremendous and positive, things take a turn for the worse when John begins to have romantic feelings for a waitress named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). Soon Sydney is put in a difficult situation, making choices which could alter their valuable friendship forever.
For those who are not aware, Hard Eight was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who would later direct big hits including Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood & Phantom Thread. This film was also the director’s very first feature. As a directional debut, I’m proud to say this is a tremendous film. As far as the film’s director is concerned, I generally have zero complaints.
Performances are simply brilliant. Philip Baker Hall as Sydney is easily the best part of the film, and for me, this might be the best performance I’ve seen the actor deliver. The chemistry that is shared between Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly is also incredible. Cameo performances from actors Samuel L. Jackson and Philip Seymour Hoffman were also a pleasant surprise and they gave powerful performances.
The plot here is solid and the opening act alone had my curiosity from the very beginning. As I watched the film, I continually questioned myself as to why a man would pick a random stranger and give him a second chance. Thankfully this is one of a few mysteries that are developed with creativity. The film itself is also unpredictable at every step, especially the ending.
Overall, for a directional debut by Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s an outstanding result as a film. Performances are superb, and Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly truly bring a convincing father-son type friendship to the screen. I found the plot engaging from the film’s opening scene alone. It’s dramatic, gripping and the film is also filled with unpredictable moments. Hard Eight is a solid film which I’m proud to add to my film collection thanks to Australian Distributor Imprint Films.
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Review Written by Peter Walkden