Hard Eight is a clever, confident debut from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, The Master), as well as a showcase role for character actor Philip Baker Hall. Hall plays Sydney, an older gambler working the system in Reno who comes across a distraught card player (John C. Reilly) and takes him under his wing. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the troubled cocktail waitress who eventually completes their unconventional family unit.
Already the lighting is exquisite, the dialogue sharp and the camera a full participant in the story. (I love the little swish pan that suddenly signals the end of Hall and Reilly’s first conversation.) If the narrative slacks in places and some scenes can’t sustain themselves for as long as they’re written, those are forgivable errors that Anderson’s later pictures will more than amend.
Reilly presses a bit hard, but Paltrow is a wonderfully smeary mess, always willing to put her character’s complications ahead of her sexiness. And Hall commands every scene he’s in, even if he barely alters his line readings beyond a quick, sure, matter-of-fact tone. “Mr. Cool. Mr. Wisdom,” says Samuel L. Jackson’s loose cannon of a security specialist when describing Sydney’s demeanor. And when Samuel L. Jackson says that, you know you’re doing something right.