‘Hard Eight’ movie review and summary
Who doesn’t love a good gambling movie? Released in 1996, Hard Eight is the feature length directorial debut of Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s gone on to win massive critical acclaim for films like There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, and Punch-Drunk Love, but he got his start in filmmaking with a classic story about gamblers who find themselves in a little too deep.
These days the movie also feels like a moment frozen in time. While physical casinos are still popular venues, most professional gamblers get their gaming in at online casinos. There they take advantage of big cash bonuses while still getting to participate in live casino games like craps, so they can be a part of the action just like the characters in Anderson’s classic film.
Hard Eight was based on an Anderson-directed short called Cigarettes & Coffee. It features elegant shots, excellent performances, and a quality score, all of which help to make Hard Eight one of the best casino films of all time. Online casinos may be dominating the gambling market today, but it’s still worth taking a look back to see what makes Hard Eight such a spectacular movie.
It doesn’t take a ton of complexity to make a film compelling. Even at the beginning of his career, that’s something Paul Thomas Anderson understood clearly. Hard Eight follows just three main characters. Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is a longtime professional gambler who takes John Finnegan (John C. Reilly) under his wing. The two of them set out to become world class gamblers.
Everything is going fine until John meets cocktail waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). The two quickly fall in love, and their romance blinds them to their larger goals. A few impulsive decisions later, and Hard Eight becomes something of a crime thriller drama for the ages.
Without a doubt, the performances in Hard Eight have given the film its lasting impression. The three leads play off each other spectacularly, and Philip Baker Hall brings an air of understated authority to his character. John C. Reilly is at his peak in this dramatic role, and his relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character feels startlingly believable.
It’s not just the leads who shine in Hard Eight. The film also features appearances from two of Hollywood’s greatest actors. A young Samuel L. Jackson plays what is essentially the film’s antagonist. He brings tremendous and threatening energy to the role. Philip Seymour Hoffman also makes an appearance. He plays an unnamed craps player in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
Hard Eight takes what could be a forgettable story and turns it into a classic with strong directorial decisions and excellent performances. In the world of casino crime films, Hard Eight may not be as memorable as something like Ocean’s Eleven, but it will leave a long lasting impression on anyone who sees it. The film launched Paul Thomas Anderson’s career and propelled some actors into the best performances of their lives.
Online casinos may slowly be replacing brick & mortar buildings because of their ease, big bonuses, and live games, but even when casinos are gone, Hard Eight will be remembered.