The power of the movie star continues to drive films, even if you've never heard of the star or seen any of his movies.
That's certainly the case in "Hard Eight" although the star isn't, as you've been informed, either Gwyneth Paltrow, this year's IT girl, or Samuel Jackson, last year's IT guy. Rather it's an obscurity named Phillip Baker Hall, who's an actor, not an IT: he once played Richard Nixon in a filmed one-man play. He dominates this film with the vivid charisma of a Komodo dragon in an ascot.
The movie turns out to be another one of those small-beer pulp fictions, restored to credulity by the good offices of Quentin Tarantino. This is a variant that might be called "The Old Hood Who Knows," perhaps thematically related to the Harvey Keitel episode in "Pulp Fiction," about a tough old coot who knows the ropes and gets things done. Or, going back even further, to Bogart's Roy Earle in "High Sierra."
One look at Sid (Hall) and you can tell: he's been around some. Clearly a made guy retired to Reno, he wears dark suits and ties (always; he even sleeps in them) and chain smokes. He has the wary look of a three-tour Green Beret NCO. And he knows things: how to play the odds against the house, how to count cards, when to go for the hard eight (a craps term meaning an odds-against bet on rolling two fours, with a great payoff) and, really, how to live the graceful life of almost Zen control. But it turns out he also knows how to love.
At a sleazy road stop outside Reno, he picks up a defeated young man named John (John C. Reilly); it's not a gay thing, it's some kind of fatherhood thing. He teaches John the hustle, all the little tricks that give the sharp guy the sliver of a percentage edge that, with patience and discipline, can spell a life on the upside of the fall of the dice.
But unlike the perfect warrior Sid, poor John is imperfect in his disciplines and faulty in his judgments. Reilly's portrait of a loser just that side of the intelligence fault line is peerless: He's feckless, self-destructive, foolish, yet in his way desperately impressed by father-figure and mentor Sid. But ultimately his moronic tendencies screw him up: He becomes involved with a waitress-prostitute (Paltrow) and a low-level mobster (Jackson). For the record, in her first tart role, Hollywood princess Paltrow seems merely routine; Jackson, on the other hand, is terrific, as always. I love that he's willing to play a weaselly scum bag without redeeming value or actor's vanity, after making major star status.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, a new guy, does the movie in '50s noir deadpan, turning Reno into a dark, alley-etched urban wilderness. It's tawdry, grotesque, voluptuous, a legendary place like Venice in the 16th century. But the film doesn't rush, it's not self-absorbed in the Tarantino fashion, it just clicks along relentlessly, picking up power, particularly as threats develop to Sid's well-ordered view of the world.
The movie also gets to some strange, previously untapped values. It formally acknowledges "cool" as a goal in male behavior. Sid is cool. Everybody loves cool, but everybody hates cool and wants cool and is driven wacko by cool. Jackson's character, Jimmy, for example, must ultimately come at Sid. Why? we wonder. And then we know. Sid is cool, where Jimmy wants cool. Jimmy is driven to prove his coolness to the old man. Big mistake, Jimmy.
The ultimate explanation to Sid's deep love for John is the movie's single banality. It's pretty easy to figure and it represents a psychological theory of behavior an 8-year-old could have engineered.
Far better if Anderson had left the motive ambiguous, haunting, with a range of possibilities. That would have been gambling on the hard eight. Riskier, but a chance to come up with a bigger win, too.
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson and Phillip Baker Hall
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Released by Rysher
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 3/07/97