Hard Eight was Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, and it’s a remarkably fully-formed release, both on its own terms and as a forerunner of the themes and approaches that have characterised his filmography up to the present day. In particular, Anderson introduces his fixation with father-figures, and the father-function in American society, along with the ways in which this is embedded in the vernacular language of cinema, and the continuing impact of classical Hollywood on the indie scene of the 1990s. Like so much 90s indie cinema, the screenplay is both simple and oblique, starring Philip Baker Hall in one of his rare leading roles as Sydney, an ambiguous figure who picks up John, a drifter played by John C. Reilly, at a local diner, and teaches him to become a grifter on the Reno casino scene. Eventually, Sydney also comes to care for Clementine, a Reno call girl, but his motivations for taking care of these two younger characters, as well as his own background, remains shady until the final scenes of the film. In the process, Anderson beautifully contemplates the fate of cinematic paternalism in American society, as well the waning yet ongoing role of cinema as a father-figure or father-function in American culture and media.
The original title of Hard Eight was Sydney, and most of the film is driven by Sydney’s unique style of delivery, which is also Philip Baker Hall’s unique style of delivery. Prior to Hard Eight, Hall’s last leading role was in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, a one-man film in which he played Richard Nixon during the later years of his life. In Secret Honor, Hall captured both Nixon’s solipsism and his transformation from a historical figure to a cinematic archetype that haunted American cinema from New Hollywood onwards. Something of that quality seeps into his depiction of Sydney, who always feels at a solipsistic remove from the rest of the film. In part, that’s because he’s the oldest character in the film, and always presented as a more classical cinematic character – speaking with a slightly stilted formalism, hands always in his pockets, and set against an older kind of casino circuit, accompanied by the all-night thrum of low-level vibraphone music. But it’s also because of his unusual style of dialogue, which consists largely in making propositions, and then clarifying, correcting and repeating other people’s responses. As a cipher for the precision and attention of Anderson’s camera, he reveals how deeply that camera is embedded in a classical address that is somewhat solipsistically removed from the indier immediacy of the present moment.
This makes for a very incongruous relationship between Sydney and the two younger characters, situating Hard Eight within a broader body of 90s indie cinema that revelled in unlikely and improbable pairings. For many directors, the more improbable these pairings were, the better, since they signalled an indie distance from the more predictable relationships and context cues of mainstream Hollywood. In that sense, Anderson takes indie interpersonal cues to their logical conclusion, by presenting a pair of relationships – between Sydney and John, and between Sydney and Clementine – that are almost entirely hypothetical, or provisional, devoid of any discernible motivation on Sydney’s part for the vast majority of the film. While he’s clearly interested in being a beneficent provider to both John and Clementine, his agenda remains unclear, just as his head is cut out of the frame when he announces his intention to provide for them. In another kind of film, he might be described as a father-figure, but here his motivation is too opaque and obscure to be fatherly in a normal sense. Instead, he performs a broader father-function, providing John and Clementine with a paternal assurance that stems as much from his classicist cinematic deportment, and his mild mid-century solipsism, as from any traditionally fatherly bearing.
This provisional family unfolds against the provisional space of the casino floor, which was often used as a cipher for new media, and incipient post-cinematic affect, in the indie 90s. Since Sydney spends his whole life in diners and casinos, the film follows suit, and yet Anderson departs from films like Leaving Las Vegas, Showgirls and Swingers by setting most of the action in Reno, rather than Vegas – a considerably more faded and jaded world, and more indebted to the modernist casino past. In fact, Sydney actively cautions John and Clementine against going to Vegas, while Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a memorable early appearance as a gauche Vegas gambler let loose on the more restrained Reno scene. This setting provides the perfect backdrop for Anderson to establish the basic syntax of many of his later films – long conversation punctuated by silky, sinuous tracking-shots that often last for minutes at a time, revealing his love of the Steadicam as a way of framing an ensemble.
Throughout all these scenes, Anderson dwells on the fate of an older kind of cinematic paternalism – cinema as a fatherly presence – a topic that percolates through all his films, but perhaps reaches its logical and most literal conclusion in the closing scenes of The Master. This question of cinematic paternalism was pertinent to many of the male indie directors of the 90s, who were often trying to forge their own way, while also showing their knowledge of the directors who had come before them. In that sense, Anderson’s project is not unlike Tarantino’s, since Sydney partly embodies a crisis in white cinematic masculinity. The difference, however, is that Anderson seems less anxious about this dated and denuded whiteness, and less desperate to compensate for it with testosterone tableaux, instead immersing himself in the ways in which cinematic classicism trickles down into even the most indie gestures, suffusing even the most indie of impulses with a melancholy pastness.
Among other things, this makes Hard Eight the purest tribute to Hall’s inimitable voice and presence. From the very first scene, Sydney’s voice seems to contain a whole century of cinematic masculinity, while Sydney himself often seems to function as indie cinema’s memory of classical cinema – he is, for example, the only person who seems aware that Clementine might be named after John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, which he continually references, to the oblivion of the other characters. Sydney’s embodiment of classical Hollywood is even more evocative when set adrift in the hyper-cinematic, proto-digital space of Reno, suffusing the film, and Hall’s performance, with an incredible loneliness – the melancholy of mid-century cinematic masculinity, even more isolated and jettisoned forty years later. At times, Sydney barely appears to be “in” the film at all, but instead floats over it like a holograph from an earlier cinematic era, a Reno attraction who never quite grounds himself in the “real” world as it is experienced and inhabited by the characters he protects.
As a result, the centre of the film is not really the central set piece, in which John and Clementine tie up one of Clementine’s clients, and then call on Sydney for help. Instead, the real centre of the film, or the displaced centre, is the mysterious relation between Sydney and his two surrogate children in John and Clementine. About midway through we learn that Sydney doesn’t see his own children, and that his interest in John and Clementine is associated with this in some way, but the connection is too diffuse to really tie down their relationship any further. In any case, the relationship breaks down when John and Clementine sleep together, and then get married, all in a single morning, making it impossible for Sydney to continue treating them as his children. At this point, Sydney’s role feels even more like a matter of cinematic formalism – a role that needs to be there for the film to continue, and for John and Clementine to exist, but at a symbolic rather than interpersonal level. From this moment on, then, Sydney is less a “character” to John and Clementine than a repository of cinematic cues that they use, often unconsciously, to articulate their relation to each other in the free-floating, hyper-cinematic spaces of Reno.
When we do find out the final twist, it does make interpersonal sense – Sydney killed John’s father, and is compensating by treating John as his own son – and yet it also reveals that Sydney’s fatherly function is a formal relation, generated by an abstract sense of obligation rather than any genuine personal interest in John and Clementine. At the very moment at which Sydney is embedded back into the interpersonal dynamics of the film, he is removed to an even more remote symbolic distance, perhaps explaining why Hard Eight is most powerful on the very cusp of this moment – when we know that Sydney has a son, and that Sydney is nevertheless treating John as his son, but we can’t quite figure out the connection between these two facts. From that formal or symbolic distance, the final piece of advice Sydney gives John and Clementine is to head to Niagara Falls to escape repercussions for imprisoning Clementine’s client. Niagara here feels remote in time as well as in space, and particularly indebted to Howard Hawks’ Niagara, where the Falls were presented as a kind of horizon to everything that could be conceived by classical Hollywood at that point in time.
With John and Clementine ensconced in Niagara, Sydney settles deeper into his hard-boiled solipsism, converging the stasis and mobility of the film into the penultimate scene, where he waits to kill Jimmy, played by Samuel L. Jackson, the only other person on the Reno casino floor who know about John and Clementine’s destination. It’s an appropriate ending for a film that often relies on free-floating images as much as a narrative throughline, taking us back, finally, to the diner where Sydney first introduced himself to John. Sitting down at a booth, Sydney’s last gesture is to pull his sleeve down over a small bloodstain on his shirt – a gesture that beautifully captures the meticulous tactility of the film, the screenplay, and Anderson’s camera. These would bloom even more extravagantly in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but there’s something quite precious and plangent about seeing his vision in filigree here, in one of the most assured, tactful and searching debuts released in the 1990s.