Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature film, is a beautiful crime film about a mysterious guardian angel named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall). The word that comes to mind when I think about this film is ‘lurid,’ and I’m not exactly sure why. I’m not even exactly sure what the word “lurid” means except that I might use it to describe the works of Lars von Trier, or Fifty Shades of Grey, or in a strange way the television program Entourage.
There’s something grotesque about those works, whether intentional or not. It’s basically the opposite of pure, and though there is a similar sexual component to Hard Eight, that lurid atmosphere comes from something else and everything else.
The world of Hard Eight, adapted from Anderson’s short film Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), is full of tired faces, cigarette smoke, watered-down cocktails, guns, leering eyes, crumpled bedsheets, the morning dawn seen through bleary eyes, wide open roads and overcast skies, broken glass and abrasive, flashing, colorful lights complete with the over-stimulation of a world like that of Brazil.
The movie takes place in and around two cities: Las Vegas and Reno. Both are built on gambling and, thus, a perverted sense of the American Dream. You can make it all and lose it all in a matter of hours. When the movie opens, the first shot dollies in to show us two men: one who seems to be at rock bottom and one who, based on what little we know, might’ve already won it all.
They are two ends of the extreme, and they find themselves at the same dingy diner somewhere outside Las Vegas. It’s the early morning, and we get the sense that the man who lost it all, John (John C. Reilly) has been up all night while Sydney (Hall) has only recently awoken from a long night’s rest.
Sydney offers John some money to pick himself back up. John has nothing to his name, and despite that desperation he is initially reluctant to accept Sydney’s gift because he thinks it must be a proposition. He reacts with anger, like a feral dog, thinking Sydney might be after something… lurid. But he’s not! We don’t know what Sydney wants because he seems not to want anything at all.
While John is wild, tired and frightened, Sydney is cool and collected. He offers John money along with a question, how far can he get on fifty dollars? This question parallels that biblical message, you can feed a man one day or teach him to fish and feed him for the rest of his life. This gives Sydney an angelic, Christ-like image, and though he’s likely been made within Las Vegas he feels like a character born outside of the… lurid city entirely. Maybe even out of this world.
So in the first 20 or so minutes of the movie we watch as Sydney teaches John a simple casino scam which nets him a couple thousand dollars. John is thrilled and begins following Sydney around like a loyal puppy dog.
Fast-forward two years, and we’re in Reno. Sydney is still Sydney, hanging out with little interest in anything but participating in everything. John still hangs around, dressing like Sydney and ordering the same drinks, something a waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) observes.
Later on Sydney will demonstrate to Clementine the same kindness shown to John. She is a waitress/prostitute struggling to make ends meet, and like John she mistakes Sydney’s kindness for a proposition.
Both characters expect something in return for Sydney’s kindness. They are deep in the mud while he levitates above it, a zen-like figure who we later learn does have his own motivations.
Years ago Sydney killed John’s father, and motivated by guilt he sought to take care of John, broke and down on his luck, in the process becoming something of a needed father figure. Sydney takes care of Clementine, we’re led to believe, because of John’s love for her.
Though the story takes place only in a matter of days (after the initial prologue), we get the impression that John and Clementine share a puppy-dog love, but then they are suddenly married (offscreen elopement) before they find themselves having kidnapped and assaulted a man, one of Clementine’s late-night customers.
John calls Sydney, his guardian angel, who struggles with John’s behavior like a father with a teenaged child. After a drawn out argument, Sydney agrees to help John and Clementine by cleaning up their mess and sending them out of town.
The final act concerns Sydney hiding the truth from John when another man, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a friend of John’s who knows Sydney’s truth, threatens to expose it to John unless Sydney pays him off. Sydney gives him what he has, and then later that night he sneaks into Jimmy’s home, waits for him to arrive, and shoots him dead.
The final moment of the film shows Sydney back in that same diner where he met John. He sits in a booth and notices a small amount of blood on his cuff.
The original title of the film was to be Sydney. He’s the character whose actions drive the story, and he’s the character whose backstory drives the antagonist in the third act. Sydney is a complex figure, something of a saint who acts out of purity of spirit. It’s only later that we learn, perhaps unsurprisingly, that he has a criminal past, and his kindness is fueled by guilt.
Las Vegas, and to a lesser extent Reno, is a sinful city, at least generally-speaking. The broad strokes paint it as a place of over-stimulation full of gambling and prostitution. It’s high-rollers and chain-smokers with oxygen tanks at the low-stakes table. It’s both glamorous and deeply upsetting.
There is a dichotomy then between those who’ve made it and probably risk little even when they’re gambling thousands of dollars at a time, and those who have little and risk it all even when it’s a five dollar bet. Sydney is that ‘have’ and John is the ‘have not.’
Beyond that Sydney is someone who seems like he’s always been on top. The less we know about him the better, because it helps strengthen him as an enigma. If John is the everyman character, then Sydney is something almost untouchable. He’s Christ.
So what’s the point of revealing his backstory other than to demonstrate his motivation. I think it levels the playing field, to be sure, and it shows that no one is really above ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. Everyone has fears, goals and a price. We think Sydney transcends all of that until we find out that he doesn’t.
Except that even when we learn of Sydney’s criminal past I don’t think we ever lose respect for him. If anything he becomes more human only because he demonstrates fear and some cowardice. He just becomes more vulnerable at the same time we’re learning of his horrific past.
Then, in the end, Sydney becomes Sydney again. Maybe that fear was an act, meant to throw Jimmy off balance, because in the end he is cool and collected as he was before, only now he’s killing a man instead of offering him a lifeline.
So I guess we could see it as Sydney going from angel to human to demon. He’s descending down some kind of ladder, but in the end I don’t get the feeling he has changed at all. He’s still the enigma he was at the beginning, someone who exists outside of time and place.
Up Next: Solaris (2002), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Point Blank (1967)