John (John C. Reilly) has just lost all his money at the gambling tables, so is sitting slumped outside a diner pondering his next move when a stranger approaches him and offers to buy him a cup of coffee. He is wary of this man, who introduces himself as Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), but after some coaxing he agrees and soon they are inside, discussing things over that coffee and a cigarette. Sydney has a proposition: he will give John fifty dollars to gamble in Reno as long as he does whatever this benefactor says...
There was a curious stillness at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson's feature debut, and that was thanks to the remarkable performance from the star whose talents he brought to the mass audience's attention. Hall was one of those recognisable faces from the previous couple of decades who had never broken through to true stardom, as a career as a character actor most likely to provoke a familiar, "Hey, it's that guy!" by those who couldn't recall his name seemed to be Hall's lot in life. But for the few who caught Hard Eight, they took his talent into account at last.
Of course, there were only a few who did see this, as Anderson found he was struggling with the company which produced, and claimed never to be fully satisfied with the results, not least because they failed to release it properly no matter its obvious qualities. Hall was rewarded later with a plum role in Anderson's Boogie Nights, the film which really put Anderson on the map, not to mention that his co-star Reilly found his profile significantly raised through that as well, one of many character stars who benefitted from such a connection to a well-received effort.
Later on in Hard Eight, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson appeared, showing the writer-director's flair for picking the right actor. But just like its lead enigma, the story kept its cards close to its chest, so that we question why Sydney would be interested in doing right by this loser, taking him under his wing and supplying him with a means to survive by gambling in Reno. But he cannot protect him completely, as other factors, John's poor choices for one, put him in peril and threaten to crack Sydney's watchful façade when John hooks up with waitress Clementine (Paltrow) and they hit a major snag.
Much of this could have been a sleeper B-movie from the fifties in its plotting and emphasis on character over story, but Anderson allowed a modern sensibility to inform it in dialogue and violence - not much of that, but what there is had an impact thanks to it occuring in such deceptively claustrophobic circumstances. The feeling that any of these characters could let someone down, from themselves to the people they cared about, was strong, and as we discover Sydney's reasoning is a lot to do with that, though we are never actually privy to all the background, leaving much to be filled in on our own. Whatever he did, it must have been major, and there may even be something more to this father figure relationship than the film ever revealed, but what was so rewarding about Hard Eight was its careful construction of personality, so that while it was a minor work in comparison with what was to come, it was by no means negligible. Music by Jon Brion and Michael Penn.