Some movies are about action, the story driven by events. The characters drive others, like Hard Eight, a view of life that makes you grateful for the roll of the dice your life has been. This movie is seemingly simple in its construction, old gambler meets young protégé and teachings him the way to ply his trade as a gambler. Along the way the young man falls in love with the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold. Yet, after watching Hard Eight a couple of times you will get the sense that there is a lot more beyond the surface. The talent of the cast and crew has a lot to do with it but there is also the story. This story seems to get under your skin and nests there, compelling you to keep watching, growing a genuine interest in the characters, even with they are people you thought you could never care about at all. Like a lot of real life, Hard Eight drifts along at its own pace, leaving you wondering, curious and fascinated about what has happened before to the characters and what will happen next.
The cast in this independent film shows us why Indies are often superior to major studio releases. Without a big budget, the crew and cast have to depend upon something often missing from the major blockbusters, talent. With no special effects or CGI to fall back on, films like Hard Eight have to depend upon the cast for telling the story in a fresh and innovative manner. This is certainly the case in this movie. The older gambler in this film is Sydney, played by the excellent character actor, Philip Baker Hall. Over the last thirty years Hall has appeared in over 60 films. In Hard Eight his portrayal of Sydney is quietly understated, just the way a professional gamble would be. He presence is always felt, always there although he is such an unassuming individual you cant imagine it comes from him. Sydney is strong willed and has strength of character yet some secretes are so far hidden we never fully see them. John C. Reily plays the young apprentice, John. Like Hall, Reily also shows up in director Andersons hit Boogie Nights and his next project Magnolia. The comfort that the actors feel with this director shows in the ease they exhibit slipping into even the most difficult scenes. Academy Award winner, Gwyneth Paltrow, plays the hooker. This is not a very glamorous role for this up-coming young star. It is gritty, real and as down to earth as Ive ever seen her, the chemistry between these three actors is gripping.
Hard Eight is director Paul Thomas Andersons freshmen effort with a feature length film. It certainly paved the way for the more commercially successful Boogie Nights. There are a lot of similarities between the movies in style and writing style. His look at the most dismal settings, the porn industry or the casino are handled with no glamour, no glitz. It is a place of work for people trapped in the life style they thought they wanted. What at first looked appealing and bright becomes mundane as the work-a-day aspects take over. Anderson shows this seedier side of life in a matter of fact manner makes his films work. As with all of his films, Anderson wrote the screenplay as well as directing. This shows in the way each shot of the film is framed like a paragraph in a book. The hold up individually yet meld together.
The DVD is worth it. The extras are better than many around today. Commentary from the director and the crew, deleted scenes (with explanation of why they were left out) and three Sundance Institute Filmmaker Lab scenes. The sound is only Dobly 2.0 which is a shame. 5.1 would have brought out the atmosphere of the casino so much better. The aspect ratio is a full 1:2.35. A must have for the serious Indy lover.