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Hard Eight   A

Rysher Entertainment

Year Released: 1997
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Paul Thomas Anderson's debut feature, Hard Eight, was dumped into a limited release by its distributor just seven months before his sophomore effort, Boogie Nights, would overshadow it completely. The film rivals Punch-Drunk Love as Anderson's most focused work, zeroing in on the themes of regret and redemption that continued to weave through Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Playing out against the casinos and hotel rooms of Reno, Nevada, it's a noir-flavored character study that stars Philip Baker Hall as Sydney, an aging gambler who takes a down-on-his-luck drifter named John (John C. Reilly) under his wing. The surrogate father-son relationship that develops between them is deeply poignant and more emotionally resonant than the similar bond between Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights. When John falls for a waitress/hooker (Gwyneth Paltrow) even more naive than he is, things take a decidedly dramatic turn, but to reveal any more about the plot here would be criminal. The main characters and elegant noir atmosphere may be heavily derived from Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur ("a great fucking movie," Anderson gushes on the DVD commentary track), but Anderson is too smart to let his influences get the better of him. Despite fantastic supporting turns by Reilly, Paltrow, and Samuel L. Jackson, this is Hall's show all the way (the film's original title was Sydney, but the distributor changed it). Behind Sydney's poker-faced facade lie hints of a life full of painful regrets, and as Hard Eight slowly unfolds, it reveals itself as the story of his quest for redemption. The final scene packs a quietly devastating punch and perfectly encapsulates the oft-repeated line from Magnolia: "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."

Review published 12.20.2003.

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