A few years later John and Sydney are close friends, one the apprentice of the other. They live the life of hotels, casinos and desert roads. Funds come from getting lucky with the dice, chancing upon a run of the cards. All is sweet until the night that Sydney gets served by Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a waitress who turns tricks because she can't envisage an alternative. Perhaps, noticing John's attraction towards Clementine, Sydney can save her in the way that he saved John? Around the same time Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) appears, a small-time hood who grates against Sydney's old-world sensibilities. All are connected, the only question is how?
In a very significant sense Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have materialised from nowhere, a fully formed talent. The writer and director of Hard Eight, a mature and assured picture, Anderson has a solid grasp of the cinema fundamentals. That's why his calling-carrd film succeeds where so many fail; it shepherds story, cast and photography in tight formation. Yet, and this is important, Anderson doesn't blindly follow the Hollywood beaten path. If anything he avoids it by concentrating on character over action, substance over flash and feelings over violence. The point is not so much where the cast have been, or where they're going, but how they cope with their position right now, second by second. This emotional density will not appeal to all, but if you get interested in the central trio then you'll stay with the story.
As such Anderson's casting choices make or break the film, so often the case in low-budget creations. Remarkably he hits the jackpot with each of the four central characters, each performer contributing something of merit to the finished product. Hall, a figure of unity and spreader of general wisdom, inhabits Sydney with an understated ease. In his lined, used face there is only consideration and concern, a sense that he's been here before. Having served his sentence, Sydney can now sit back and think of others, taking time to observe people, watching them gamble and perhaps show their true selves. One who comes under his paternal gaze is John, ably played by Reilly. His body language is just so, initially a coiled wire of suspicion, gradually relaxing to trust and admiration. Their bond gives Hard Eight its shape and heart.
Despite having lesser roles, Paltrow and Jackson display unusual bearing and confidence. Like Hall and Reilly, they both buy into Anderson's method, angling their interpretation in such a way that the characters behave as you might expect. Basically Hard Eight takes its time over personal development, refusing to force the pace with plot mechanics, and the cast react well to such treatment.
It's only with the too perfectly structured and circular storyline that Anderson stumbles, with Hard Eight making obvious points best left to your imagination. The problem is that Anderson has to somehow end the tale, having captured your attention in the first scenes; for most of the film you wonder just what Sydney's game is, where there is method in his madness. When the explanation comes, it's anticlimactic. Yet, curiously, this isn't such a big disappointment. The significance of Sydney's motivation recedes as we get into the story, replaced by a certain sympathy for the characters, a desire to understand them and see how their lives work out. It just becomes of less importance.
Beyond the way that Hard Eight fits together, slowly revealing its hand to the audience, there is Anderson's technical ability. Working with his photographer Robert Elswit, Anderson demonstrates visual flair, a feel for the camera and its place in the great scheme of things. At one end of the scale, in the domain of the familiar two-shot, Anderson holds the frame for a seeming eternity, keeping a lid on tension and uncertainty. At the other end lies the Steadicam, a device that Anderson apparently adores. There's a terrific casino scene where the cameraman follows Sydney as he walks to his gaming table. We see lights, punters, occasionally the lens loses sight of Sydney, then naturally swings and picks him up again. It's an elaborate piece of camerawork and the glitz of the venue is ideal; Anderson knows what he wants and how to get it.
This is clearly film as character study, patiently brushing the darkness away to reveal dignity, dependence and friendship; human qualities. No doubt the measured, leisurely steps of Hard Eight will not be to all tastes, but so what. In the context of Anderson's script, they approach perfection.