Hard Eight (1996): Paul Thomas Anderson’s Directing Debut, Starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow

Sundance Film Festival 1997–A vividly evoked mood, strong dramatic characterization, and lack of conventional plot mark Paul Thomas Anderson’s impressive feature debut Hard Eight (aka Sydney).

Hard Eight

Theatrical release poster


The film relates an intensely intimate story of a gambler who befriends a young drifter, and in the process, he becomes his mentor and surrogate father,

As he will show in his next (and better) films, particularly “Boogie Nights,” Anderson loves all of his characters, and thus writes rich roles for each one of them, based on taut, if sometimes enigmatic, dialogue.


John C. Reilly plays John, an unlucky fellow at the Reno gambling tables, broke and shivering outside of a roadside diner. A courtly stranger, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) brings him to his feet, slowly gaining the young man’s confidence, offering to take him on as a protagonist.

They return to Reno, where Sydney, at once paternal and cryptic, teaches John how to “project” the image of a high roller. The lesson pays off, for John is offered a free motel room by the casino management.

Two years later, John has become a loyal student, though he still lacks Sydney’s polished restraint. In the intervening years, the two men have developed a father-son relationship, with the older man always concerned and checking his protg’s tendencies for excess.

Sydney disapproves of John’s friendship with Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a vulgar Reno type, but he is supportive of his infatuation with Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a vulnerable cocktail waitress, who, unbeknownst to John, moonlights as a hooker. Just hours after Clementine and John get married, she picks up a customer in a casino bar who refuses to pay her. John rushes in to help his wife, and the couple foolishly attempts to demand a ransom from the man’s wife.

Sydney cleans up the mess, and sends John and Clementine, but Jimmy knows all about Sydney’s criminal past, and demands a hefty payoff to keep quiet.

In several scenes, Anderson reveals his dual love, for the film medium as well as for actors, as in the long monologue in which Reilly relates how his trousers once caught on fire while he was waiting on line to see a movie. However, the revelation of Sydney’s paternal interest in John comes off as a melodramatic contrivance. Equally contrived is a final scene that’s too self-consciously ironic.

The movie, which is cool and controlled, displays the fluid cinematography by Robert Elswit, who orchestrates some dazzling tracking shots (tracking shots would become a staple of Anderson’s work).

Hard Eight is a chamber drama with a touch of David Mamet in its edgy dialogue, manifest in the confrontations between Hall and Jackson.

Hall, who has become Anderson’s quintessential actor (he’ll appear in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”), gives Sydney a touch of grave dignity and sad melancholy.

As John, a dim but decent fellow, Reilly is sympathetic. Paltrow looks beautiful, but has hard time conveying Clementine’s sudden mood swings and self-destructiveness. Jackson’s flamboyance as a small hood with big ambitions recalls his turn in “Pulp Fiction” and other films.

Though set in Vegas, Anderson doesn’t care about the glitzy side of the city–there are no casinos or rich gamblers. Instead, he focuses on the murkier and darker personalities of his low-life characters.

Spoiler Alert:

In the last sequence, Sydney sneaks into Jimmy’s house, kills him and retrieves the money. The next day, Sydney returns to the diner where he had met John. Sydney makes a point of covering the blood on his shirt cuff with his jacket sleeve

The film was developed at the Sundance Institute Filmmaker Lab, and later played at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto Film Fests.

Hard Eight received a limited theatrical release and failed at the box-office.  However, it got a second life, a retroactive boost, when Anderson’s second film, Boogie Nights was released to much wider acclaim, putting him at the forefront of the most exciting indie directors to watch.


Philip Baker Hall as Sydney
John C. Reilly as John Finnegan
Gwyneth Paltrow as Clementine
Samuel L. Jackson as Jimmy
Philip Seymour Hoffman as young craps player
Robert Ridgely as Keno Bar Manager
Melora Walters as Jimmy’s Girl


Running Time: 102 minutes

Production company: Rysher Entertainment/Green Parrot for Samuel Goldwyn
Producer: Robert Jones, John Lyons
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Screenplay: Anderson, based on his short, “Cigarettes & Coffee.”

Photography: Robert Elswit
Prod Design: Nancy Deren
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Music: Michael Penn, John Brion
Editor: Barbara Tulliver

Distributed by The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Release date: January 20, 1996 (Sundance Fest); February 28, 1997 (US)

Budget $3 million
Box office $222,559