We get older; we get wiser. That’s how the old adage goes, and I believe it. For the most part.
Sometimes we get lonelier too–because we are alone. And because we know why.
This is the juncture where Sydney (the awesome Philip Baker Hall), an aging professional gambler (I’d say he’s mid-sixties, at least) resides in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed 1996 feature film, Hard Eight. (Well, actually, he resides in various high end casino hotel rooms in Reno, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. There’s no house. Not even an apartment.)
Sydney is strictly nomadic. Unattached. He comes and goes as he pleases. He answers to no one–though that wasn’t always the case, entirely. He was married once, with two children. A boy and a girl. Both are completely grown–late twenties and early thirties–and distant. He doesn’t know where they live.
Regret is a palpable thing for Sydney. It aches like arthritic knees and a bad hip. There is no solace in the day in and day out grind and glare of the casino or the rituals of meals taken in a coffee shop and cigarettes fished from a collapsed soft pack. Expensive suits, manicured nails and good manners don’t help either; they’re just remnants of a bygone era that tend to piss the local yokels off.
But Sydney has wisdom that he longs to share. To that end he takes a dimwitted drifter and a volatile cocktail waitress under his wings.
At first John (John C. Reilly) is weary of Sydney. He thinks the old guy might be some kind of a pervert. But true to his word Sydney just wants to show John the ropes and nothing else. And he does.
He shows him how to finagle a nights room and board on the house by playing the slots and cashing in chips in some kind of round robin manipulation that I couldn’t quite make out the intricacies of. (I’m not very good at that kind of stuff. Not much of a chess player I’m afraid.) He shows him how to win at craps and keno and, probably, (though I’m not sure that this wasn’t just John’s lone con) how to steal cable movies from the front desk.
But more than all of that, Sydney teaches John how to be a gentleman. As such John attracts the attention of Clementine, (Gwyneth Paltrow) a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a hooker and Jimmy, (Samuel L. Jackson) a small time hustler, who moonlights as a security guard.
Sydney approves of Clementine, even though he knows about her hustle, because he sees a fragile, childlike vulnerability in her, but not of Jimmy because…well…Jimmy walks, talks and smells like the rat that he is. The problem is when it comes to Jimmy, John is both nose blind and regular blind. And when it comes to Clementine, neither he nor Sydney can see the forest for the pretty face, the decent heart and the halfway good intentions.
These entanglements are the consequence of the ties that bind, exactly what Sydney has spent a lifetime avoiding. Now he desperately hangs on when every strand of his intricately coiled instinct tells him to cut loose.
And then there’s this: Sydney is a slave to decorum. Jimmy violates Sydney’s beloved master hard. He thinks Sydney’s good manners and fastidious articulation (not to mention the senior citizen thing) indicates softness. He’s wrong.
On the other hand Sydney thinks Jimmy is just a parking lot rent-a-cop with a try-hard vocabulary. He can’t see the fox for the fool’s gold bling. He’s wrong.
Jimmy is cunning. And dangerous…
And so is Syd.
Hard Eight is a great movie. To me it is every bit as good, maybe even better than Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. These movies have a similar feel (though one is straight realism while the other is melodrama, so maybe it’s just me) and while Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite film director, Sidney Lumet comes in a such a close second that, if not for A Stranger Among Us and the remake of Gloria, it would probably be a tie.
Here’s the deal: Hard Eight is Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film. He made it on a shoestring budget when he was twenty-six. Conversely 2007’s Before the Devil Knows Your Dead was Sidney Lumet’s final film. He had a substantially larger budget of eighteen million dollars, but in comparison to the budgets of tepid blockbusters of the same year like Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End and Spiderman 3, it was mere chicken feed.
Lumet was eighty-three when he made Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. The wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in it. Hoffman was also featured in a memorable bit role in Hard Eight. In fact he was cast in the first five films Anderson directed.
Sidney Lumet died April 9, 2011 at the age of eighty-six. Philip Seymour Hoffman died three years later. He was forty-six.
Paul Thomas Anderson is still going strong. They tell me his latest film Phantom Thread is really great. Daniel Day Lewis (one of my all time favorite actors) plays a control freak dress designer with a very serious jones for a much younger woman.
It’s in my perpetual queue.