In just a few weeks, the latest Paul Thomas Anderson film, The Master, is going to finally hit theaters after many years of waiting since There Will Be Blood in 2007, his last movie. While The Master may be under the radar for most audiences, it’s one of the most highly anticipated movies amongst cinephiles, for good reason. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best and most important directors of our time, and any new film of his is a sure-fire event.
So much of an event, that I’ve decided that my second Director Retrospective will focus on him. Starting today, we’ll look back at Paul Thomas Anderson’s career and see his interesting evolution and maturation as a director and a screenwriter, starting with his first feature Hard Eight, and ending with my official review of The Master starring Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Like my Christopher Nolan retrospective, I’ll be looking at the themes and stylistic quirks that connect each film, and see how he grows and “learns” with each subsequent film.
Also worth noting: This review contains zero spoilers! Hooray!
With all that being said, let’s begin with his debut: Hard Eight.
“You think, what, you can walk through this life without being punished?”
If you’d seen Hard Eight when it came out in 1996, maybe you’d like it, maybe you wouldn’t, but you most likely wouldn’t suspect that director Paul Thomas Anderson would become one of the biggest auteurs in the industry. This is a very quintessential “first film” from a growing auteur. You can tell that he has a voice, and all the pieces for a great film are there, but it just doesn’t really leave much of an impact when it’s all over.
However, it’s still interesting to discuss this film when comparing it with the rest of Anderson’s filmography, because you can see just about all of his techniques, motifs, and thematic callbacks starting with this film. They aren’t really fully developed, but it’s fascinating to see where it all started. It’s like looking at a famous person you admire and going back through history to see what he or she was like as a child.
Hard Eight begins with a man named John (John C. Reilly) down on the dumps because he lost a bunch of money gambling in Las Vegas. He was attempting to win some money himself at the casinos in order to pay for his mother’s funeral, but he’s come out unlucky. As he’s slouching against the walls of a nearby diner, an old man named Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) goes to him and puts him back up on his feet by teaching him a way to abuse the perks of rate-cards and netting thousands of dollars at the casinos. John, of course, barely questions why Sydney is being so helpful towards him thanks to the success this trick has brought him.
Sydney continues to help and in a way raise John for two years until an incident in Reno happens, in which John is embroiled in a violent dispute that ends with him holding a man hostage. And on top of that, a mysterious figure named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) knows something about Sydney’s dark past and threatens to reveal it to John.
Hard Eight is, on a technical level, a flawless movie. All of the acting is fantastic, the script is incredibly tight, the dialogue is precise, and it ends on a wonderfully ambiguous note. But there’s something about the movie that feels very distant and cold. That could’ve been the point, but I’m not sure if it was the best fit for this story.
But whatever. I’m not here to review the movie. What I am here to do is see how this film truly does represent the “birth” of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “voice”, and how it even connects to his later films. And if you look closely, you’ll find many of his signature elements at play in this film.
Anderson has always been a fan of long-takes, whether it’s the opening scenes of Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, or as he twists and turns through the hallways of the TV station in Magnolia. But unlike most directors, Anderson never uses long-takes for mere gimmickry or showing off. In fact, most times you don’t even notice that the take was continuous until the jarring cut at the end.
Hard Eight opens with a long-take as Sydney stands in front of the diner and slowly walks up to John. There’s actually a purpose to this take, like most of Anderson’s long-takes. We can see just at the edge of the screen that Sydney has been watching John for a while before he walks up to him. This very subtly hints at the fact that he knows something about John, and gives there relationship a certain tension and uneasiness. And as the camera follows him, the fact that we are with Sydney throughout the whole scene and almost see it through his eyes (We never see his face until it cuts to them talking in the diner) gives it a chilling quality I can not really put into words, but it certainly adds to the tension.
Then there’s Phillip Baker Hall’s brilliant performance. Paul Thomas Anderson has a knack for getting the most out of his actors. Each and eery film of his has at least one awards-worthy performance. Hell, he can even get Adam Sandler to create one of the most nuanced and subtle comedic performances ever put to film (Which we’ll get to much later in this retrospective). With just about each and every actor he works with, he creates a memorable character that puts their talents to their maximum effect.
In the case of Phillip Baker Hall’s Sydney, he creates a character that has to show very clear demons that haunt him to this day, while still keeping a calm and collected composure throughout the entire film: A combination that’s easier said than done. If there’s one genuinely great element in Hard Eight, however, it’s the way that Hall actually conveys this effortlessly.
Not only does he pull off the combo, he actually breaks the rule of actors using their face to convey emotions by keeping it deadly still almost the entire time. The nuances come in through very subtle inflections in his voice. We truly get a feeling that Sydney does care about John, and that he wants to atone for some great sin that he’s done in the past, but there are hints of something darker lurking within him, and you can see it eating away at him in the way he seems to be so overly nice to John, and then in those moments where he tries his damnedest to maintain his professionalism when John’s embroiled in a “hostage situation”. The performance is just masterful.
Of course, Anderson’s writing also helps. There’s something about Paul Thomas Anderson’s dialogue that evokes Tarantino while also being the absolute opposite of the talkative writer/director. It has that same Tarantino-ish “flair”, in that the dialogue just sounds very cool and stylized, but it doesn’t have that same meandering quality that Tarantino’s scripts usually have. Instead, Anderson’s dialogue is usually stripped down to its bare essentials. His characters speak how they feel, they don’t waste much time with meaningless small-talk or pleasantries, and go straight to the point. As a result, every single piece of dialogue feels important either on a plot level or on a character level, and Paul Thomas Anderson just gets better at it as he develops throughout his filmography.
Now, as for the big reveal on what Sydney’s “haunted past” is, I don’t really wanna spoil it since this is certainly the most underseen of Anderson’s work, but I will say that any Anderson fan should seek this film out because it is a rather raw, bare summation of the main theme that connects all of Anderson’s work together.
Back in my Nolan retrospective, one thing I liked to do was find certain thematic callbacks and character-types that Nolan liked to use in every film of his. And almost every auteur in the industry has that one “thing” that connects their work. Nolan was obsessed with the relationships between order and chaos, subjectivity and objectivity, logic and emotional interference, you get the idea. And then there’s guys like Terrence Malick, David Cronenberg, and Darren Aronofsky, who seem to focus solely on different variations of one single theme in every movie (Malick: Man’s relationship to nature/the universe; Cronenberg: Relationship between the psyche and the body; Aronofsky: The nature of obsesssion and perfection as something unattainable).
With Paul Thomas Anderson, all but one of his films deal with a very interesting theme: Fathers and sons. Whether it be biological fathers, or father-surrogates, paternity is something you will find in every Paul Thomas Anderson film (except for Punch-Drunk Love, but we’ll get to what makes that film an interesting case much later).
It’s very interesting to see this dynamic play out in Hard Eight, because it’s very clear from the start that Sydney is a sure-fire father-figure for John. But there’s also the added mystery of the “why”. Why is Sydney so drawn to John? What does he see in him? What makes him feel a duty to take care of him?
Without spoiling anything, it does say something rather interesting about the nature of father-son relationships. That perhaps men just connect with son-figures on a purely instinctual level. Sydney didn’t have to help John out, especially considering getting even remotely close to him elevates his chances of John discovering the terrible truth of what he did. But he does it anyway. To find redemption? To atone? Out of guilt? Such is the plight of Sydney: No matter how much he genuinely loves John, it will lead to his downfall somewhere down the road. And yet, in the meantime, he will continue to take care of John anyway. Because that’s what fathers do.
Hard Eight isn’t a great movie, but it’s a very damn good one, and an appropriately impressive debut for Paul Thomas Anderson. But, like I said before, it’s only the beginning for Anderson. Much like Christopher Nolan, it wasn’t until his follow-up that he announced himself as the real deal. Next time, we will tackle the epic comedy Boogie Nights, and see Anderson evolve as a filmmaker with each subsequent movie.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to change my name to Jack Hardy. I’LL SHOW MY MOM THAT I CAN BE SOMEBAHDAY!