(director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: Barbara Tulliver; cast: Philip Baker Hall (Sydney), John C. Reilly (John), Samuel L. Jackson (Jimmy), Gwyneth Paltrow (Clementine); Runtime: 101; Entertainment/Rysher/Green Parrot; 1997)
“In many ways this film reminds me of Melville’s wonderful film, Bob The Gambler.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

There are many stories that can be told in Las Vegas about those who go there to chase their dreams. This one has a reflective mood that gives its lonely characters a chance to either grow as the story develops or for them to become clearer about who they are and what they are doing.

We can see Vegas at night (or is it day), with its bright lights, as we scrutinize those on the low end of the gambling hierarchy scratch out a living in this casino town. Las Vegas can arguably be America’s alter ego, even if that city is a sharp contrast from what the rest of the country is like. But it does offer a lure for foreign and American visitors to see how the free-wheeling, capitalist country they imagine America to be, operates when it lets its puritanical hair down.

In many ways this film reminds me of Melville’s wonderful film, Bob The Gambler, as the old pro, with style and old-world charm, Sydney (Hall), teaches the young neophyte gambler, John (Reilly), how to eke out a living from gambling. How to do it smartly, with class. It only differs from Melville’s film in the violence that ensues. Hard Eight moves reluctantly into noir film dimensions where the bombardment of bright neon from the swank casinos can’t hide the darkness present in the characters’ hearts, whose dreams have been poisoned and compromised by the dire circumstances they find themselves in. While Melville’s film retains an almost unbelievable lightness. This is not so for first time director, Anderson. He revels in the nuances of his protagonists, with a need for them to be respected and thought of as tough-minded, prepared to go as far as killing someone in order for them to protect what they consider valuable.

Sydney treats John to a coffee and a smoke in a diner, after Sydney finds John sitting slumped down and unkempt in front of the diner. He offers to help him out, no strings attached, if John will just tell him his troubles. John says he needs $6,000 to pay for his mother’s funeral. The conversation between the two is guarded and minimal, and we are left to wonder why this older, sophisticated, seasoned gambling pro, would want to help out this youngster as a father/son relationship begins to develop. The answer comes toward the end of the film, though we never really learn his psychological reasons for doing what he does. So we are left tantalized with this mystery man and his impeccable manners, wondering who he is, realizing that he is not a St. Francis type of savior but probably some kind of wise guy mentor who seems to have a certain worldly wisdom that he can dispense to someone who is willing to trust and follow him.

The two of them head for Vegas in Sydney’s car. Sydney stakes John to some money and teaches him how to gamble small time, a skill he will need to learn if he wishes to stay in Vegas. The dim-witted John operates the casino scam Sydney taught him, which is an actual scam. The casino gets ripped off as John works his $150 into $2,000 worth of credit, and a free room with amenities.

A couple of years go by and John has come to idolize Sydney, as he feels contented with what Sydney has done for him, feeling right at home after moving to Reno. He is attracted to the alluring but dumb cocktail waitress and part-time hooker, Clementine (Gwyneth). Through their conversations and concerns we get a look at what the gambling scene is like without all the glitter, as its small time inhabitants are caught in the dark web the casino’s spin. Jimmy (Jackson) is a friend of John’s, who works security inside for the casinos. He does not impress Sydney as being anything but a sleazy loudmouth and a sure bet for trouble.

The final scenes involve the trouble John and Clementine get into after getting married and how Sydney discretely helps them, while Jimmy plays a part in uncovering Sydney’s past. At last, we find out why Sydney is doing all this for John. The characters make this film happen. It is a good first effort by the director, who has told a tight story and held our interest by taking a fresh approach to tell an old story.

Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, and Philip Baker Hall in Sydney (1996)