Hard Eight (P.T. Anderson, 1996)

Before Dirk Diggler, the falling frogs, and Adam Sandler’s rage, Paul Thomas Anderson made a sublime and often brilliant character study entitled Hard Eight. It’s the quiet story of Sydney (the regal Philip Baker Hall), an old gambler who meets and befriends John (dopey John C. Reilly), an out of luck drifter looking for help. Under the neon lights of Las Vegas and Reno, the two form a mellow father/son relationship seemingly molded out of chance and circumstance. But looks, and in turn the odds, can be deceiving, and Hard Eight holds hidden pleasures throughout. During a number of epic long takes, cinematographer Robert Elswitt’s camera roves through the slot machines and smokey bars like a hypnotized traveller, much as John does during his gambling initiation with Sydney. It’s a glorious use of location, one that mirrors the layers of character complexity and motivation, masking an uncertainty between past and present Anderson alludes to often. Hard Eight is a clear cut beginning to the director’s obsession with father figures and the affects of parental action on their children, themes which deepen and ripen with each passing P.T.A. film.

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