Sydney (aka Hard Eight) (1996): Paul Thomas Anderson’s Directing Debut

A vividly evoked mood, strong dramatic characterization, and lack of conventional plot mark Paul Thomas Anderson’s impressive feature debut “Hard Eight” (aka “Sydney”), an intensely intimate story of a gambler who befriends a young drifter and becomes his mentor and surrogate father.

Grade: B- (*** out of *****)

Hard Eight

Theatrical release poster

As he would show in his next (and better) films, particularly “Boogie Nights,” Anderson shows sympathy for–in fact, loves–all of his characters, and thus writes for them rich roles, based on lively 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 protege. They return to Reno, where Sydney, at once paternal and cryptic, teaches John how to “project” the image of a high roller. The lesson pay off, for John is offered a free hotel 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 protege’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 flaunts fluid cinematography by Robert Elswit, who manages a few dazzling tracking shots, which also will become a staple of Anderson. “Sydney” 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.

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, but 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 exciting indie directors to watch.

Made on a budget of $3 million, ultimately, the movie was a commercial failure.


Sydney (Philip Baker Hall)
John (John C. Reilly)
Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow)
Jimmy (Smauel L. Jackson)
Philip Seymour Hoffman


Running Time: 100 minutes

Production company: Rysher Entertainment/Green Parrot for Samuel Goldwyn
Producer: Robert Jones, John Lyons
Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Photography: Robert Elswit
Prod Des: Nancy Deren
Costumes: Mark Bridges
Music: Michael Penn, John Brion
Editor: Barbara Tulliver

Music by Jon Brion
Michael Penn
Cinematography Robert Elswit
Edited by Barbara Tulliver

Distributed by The Samuel Goldwyn Company

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