“Hard Eight” is a spirited but flawed venture, an admirable early effort from one of Hollywood’s most prestigious storytellers. The characters here are underdeveloped and the plot drifts in and out of consciousness, arousing boredom more often than intrigue. Still, there are faint glimmers of excellence here, brief indications that these ideas, while raw and unrefined, would later be whisked into something beautiful.
It’s not a heist movie, nor a conman movie. You’re thinking of “Ocean’s Eleven.” “Hard Eight” is the other movie, the one up north in Reno featuring the characters with Goodwill suits and discount haircuts. They aren’t down on their luck losers, in fact they’re up most of the time. But Anderson’s crew is composed of a more realistic breed of gambling grifter, the folk you see lurking at those shady highway casinos across state lines.
We start off with John (John C. Reilly), a 30-something man sitting aimlessly outside of a non-descript Vegas diner. The more confident and composed Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) walks up to John and offers to buy him a cup of coffee and confess his troubles. John reveals his mom just died and that he came to Vegas to win $6,000 to pay for her funeral. Sydney coolly listens, never exerting any more emotion than necessary, and invites John to learn the tricks of the gambling trade.
From there, the two start a father-son like relationship, relocating to Reno where a lovely cocktail waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) wins both John and Sydney’s admiration. Around the same time, John introduces Sydney to Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a two-bit gangster type who Sydney clearly sees through, despite denying him his elderly eye contact.
The first half feels great, like we’re building to something significant and honesty. And we see early examples of Anderson’s direction, extended long takes on characters, multiple perspectives of stationary sequences, and symbolism that indicates at something much more profound lurking underneath. You’ll rack your mind trying to figure out what all the coffee and cigarettes mean, or why Anderson chose Hard Eight instead of Hard Six.
But “Hard Eight” proves to still be an amateur effort as the second half of the story dissolves into mush. The story transforms into nonsensical situations, culminating in an ending that doesn’t really satisfy. Characters fail to develop any more than when we first met them, feeling as if they didn’t exist until Anderson shined his light on them. Maybe those faults are owed to this movie being set in Reno, where we would have gotten a stronger plot and exposition if this were filmed under the bright lights of Vegas.
More likely, “Hard Eight” is just an easy movie because it was Anderson’s first feature. In fact, if you were to watch this film without knowing who directed it, you probably would say it was done by a director imitating Anderson. It feels like a concept and a film done by a USC MFA student, one with lengthy financial resources and enough time off school to shoot in some Reno casinos for a few weeks. “Hard Eight” is a hard sell, but it’s still a worthy film to watch for those early hints and glimmers of PTA greatness.