Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/7/09 w/ Additional Edits.
Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Sydney/Hard Eight tells the story of a gambler named Sydney who takes in a young man to show him how to survive while becoming his protégé. During this journey, the young man falls in love with a waitress/hooker while delving into trouble as he turns to Sydney for help. Playing the role of Sydney is noted character actor Philip Baker Hall in a rare leading role that would be the first of many collaborations he would have with P.T. Anderson. Another actor who would become another of Anderson's key collaborators is John C. Reilly who plays Sydney's protegee John. Also starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and other future Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, and Robert Ridgley. Sydney/Hard Eight is a stylish debut film from Paul Thomas Anderson.
A young man named John (John C. Reilly) is sitting outside a diner when a much older man named Sydney walks him and offers John if he would like some coffee and cigarettes. Sydney gets John into a conversation about why John is sitting outside as John reveals he needs some money. Sydney takes John in as they go to Las Vegas where he shows John the skills he needs to be a successful gambler. John becomes impressed in what Sydney teaches him as two years later, he's already his protégé. By this time, Sydney and John are regulars at the Reno where John has made friends with one of the casino's security officers named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). Jimmy remembers Sydney for some bets he made some years back as Sydney also gets the attention of a waitress/hooker named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) whom he likes for her kindness.
Later that night after a few games, Sydney is about to return to his hotel where he also finds Clementine walking outside. Realizing her other profession, Sydney takes her in to the room he and John stays. Sydney's fatherly persona comforts Clementine as later that morning, she and John talked as they decided to hang out together. After a day of gambling along with some heckling from another gambler (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Sydney gets a distressing call from John. Arriving at a motel, Sydney finds John and Clementine dealing with an unconscious man (F. William Parker) as they've taken him hostage over money he owes to Clementine. Sydney refuses to take part of the plan until he handles everything forcing John and Clementine to leave Reno. After taking care of John and Clementine's problems, things get worse when Sydney is confronted by Jimmy who reveals a secret. For Sydney, he makes a move that would change things for the people in his life.
If there was a theme that's recurrent in P.T. Anderson's films, it's about the idea of family. In this film, it's about an old-time gambler who takes in a young man to show him the ropes to be a smart gambler for survival. He also takes in a young hooker/waitress who has no idea what she wants to do with her life as he gives her a bit of a break. It's something Anderson seems to explore on in later films where in Boogie Nights, a young guy is accepted into a family of porn stars and porno filmmakers while Magnolia was about the dysfunctions where both a son and daughter are estranged from their fathers. In Sydney, Anderson tells the story of a man willing to help two inept individuals dealing with their mess while giving them lessons. Yet, it's later revealed that he has a past that he's trying to leave behind.
Anderson creates a lot of stylish dialogue that's rhythmic in its delivery while the character of Sydney plays it cool and to-the-point. The direction of Anderson clearly shows a young filmmaker developing a style. While he creates unique compositions and tracking shots that would define his early work. It's clear that not every shot he creates or movements work entirely. Yet, it's him trying to find a style where he's getting somewhere but just doesn't have it perfectly. Another moment of Anderson's unique direction that is noticeable is him shooting inserts of cigarettes and coffee in reference to the 1993 short he directed. Still, Anderson creates scenes and moments where he can capture the intensity of the drama or a moment of humor. Overall, Anderson creates a film that doesn't get boring nor overwhelmed with its sense of style as he's starting to develop his own filmmaking voice.
Cinematographer Robert Elswit, a man who would become a regular collaborator of Anderson for all of his feature-length films, does excellent work with the film's photography with stylish, low-light looks in many of the film's interior scenes. Notably the casinos and bars where there's colors and an intimate look while the exteriors are mostly grey and a bit colorless as they're often shot in the mornings. While it's doesn't stand up with Elswit's other work with Anderson in later films, it's still worth noting that Elswit does some fine work in the film. Editor Barbara Tulliver does fine work with the film's editing with nice fade-outs for the film's structure, smooth transitional cuts, slow-mo movements, and other editing techniques. Tulliver's work is notable creating the sense of drama and momentum in telling Anderson's story.
Production designer Nancy Deren along with set decorator David A. Koneff and art director Michael Krantz do wonderful work with the look of the Reno/Vegas casinos and bars along with the hotel rooms. The look is intimate yet stylish while the home of Jimmy is very stylish with bad rugs and carpeting. Costume designer Mark Bridges does great work with the straight black suits that Sydney wears while the more stylish suits that Jimmy wears reveals the man's wild personality. The clothes that Clementine wears from the waitress tops to dirty skirts reveal the cheap look that she sports. Sound designer Richard King and editor Jeffrey R. Paine is very good for its location sounds of casinos and the streets of Reno and Vegas along with its raucous atmosphere.
The music of the film is created by two more key collaborators of Anderson in his early films in Michael Penn and Jon Brion. The soundtrack features many of Brion's melodic, atmospheric score pieces led by bells and vibraphones to give it a cheesy yet effective lounge feel to complement the world of casinos. The jazziness in other pieces by Michael Penn is also effective to bring a cool mood while some of the additional contributions including a song from Penn and vocalist Aimee Mann, another key collaborator of Anderson, that is played in the final credits. The film's soundtrack is very good though not up to par with Anderson's other film soundtracks in the films to come.
The casting by Christine Sheaks is brilliant for its assembly of actors, many of whom weren't very known at the time. Along with performances and appearances from F. William Parker as a hostage and Anderson's father Ernie as a man waiting in line. There's early appearances from Anderson regulars like Melora Walters as a girlfriend of Jimmy's, Robert Ridgley as a Keno bar manager, and a scene-stealing performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as a craps shooter heckling Sydney. Samuel L. Jackson is great as Jimmy, a security manager who likes to be very brazen and cool while sporting some filthy dialogue. Jackson's performance is a bit more laid-back than his Jules character from Pulp Fiction but also quite as menacing when he threatens Sydney where Jackson got to be the badass.
Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as Clementine, a young hooker/waitress unsure of what to do with her life while finding some comfort from Sydney whom she likes as a customer at the bar. Paltrow brings a bit of sexiness as well as fragility to her character that truly showed that she was an actress that was definitely on the rise which she has proven since as it's a fine early role for Paltrow. John C. Reilly is really good as John, a down-on-his-luck young guy who becomes Sydney's protégé as Reilly really shines. Reilly, known recently for low-brow comedy roles, shows great depth as a guy who is looking for guidance on life as it's definitely an excellent performance from the actor who would become one of Anderson's regular actors.
Finally, there's Philip Baker Hall in an amazing leading performance as Sydney. Hall, mostly known as a character actor up to that point, delivers with such cool restraint and calm as a wise gambler who knows all the tricks to being a gambler. In his scenes with Reilly and Paltrow, he brings a fatherly presence as someone who can guide them into giving them the right path while cleaning up their messes like any father would. It's a brilliant performance from an actor, who would also become a regular of Anderson, who often gets overlooked and was finally given a big role to work with.
Sydney/Hard Eight is a fascinating, smart, and stylish debut film from Paul Thomas Anderson. Fans of Anderson will no doubt see this film as a great place to where Anderson got to refine his craft as a filmmaker though Boogie Nights is a better introduction. With a great cast led by Philip Baker Hall along with amazing supporting work from John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Samuel L. Jackson. It's a film that is entertaining, filled with great acting, stylish dialogue, and great scenery. In the end, Sydney/Hard Eight is an excellent, cool debut film from Paul Thomas Anderson.
P.T. Anderson Films: Boogie Nights - Magnolia - Punch-Drunk Love - There Will Be Blood - The Master - Inherent Vice - Junun - Phantom Thread
Related: The Short Films & Videos of P.T. Anderson - The Auteurs #15: Paul Thomas Anderson
Related: The Short Films & Videos of P.T. Anderson - The Auteurs #15: Paul Thomas Anderson
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