Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We pay our respects to unconventional families, and the movies that feature them.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are about makeshift families, composed of people estranged from their homes for reasons pertaining to their eccentricity, otherness, or feelings of self-loathing. Anderson’s first film, the remarkably confident crime thriller Hard Eight, is no exception. In fact, the phrase “crime thriller,” which technically applies, fails to capture the emotional delicacy of a uniquely fragile and wounded noir. The scams perpetrated by the dreamers and losers of Hard Eight are secondary in emphasis to the poignancy of their regret and isolation.
The film has a deceptively loose, wandering sense of plotting, almost suggesting several shorts that have been spliced together. In the first scene, an aging con, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), approaches a young, scruffy drifter, John (John C. Reilly), outside a café somewhere not too far out from Reno. In a stylized conversation that suggests a loopy fusion of the writing of David Mamet and Bo Goldman, it’s established that John’s mother has died, and he is trying to win $6,000 to pay for her funeral. In other words, John has lost family, which is incidental to the text that follows but pivotal to the emotional subtext. Later in the film, Sydney discloses to John’s girlfriend, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), that he has a son and daughter more or less John and Clementine’s ages, subtly, casually filling in a part of the mystery of why this old-school smoothie would bother tutoring John on the ways of living off the casino world’s fringes. Like virtually every aging, powerful male in Anderson’s filmography, Sydney’s looking for a surrogate child as a sign of a new chance at communal belonging.
The episodes that spring from Sydney and John’s initial meeting, which isn’t as fateful as it initially appears to be, revolve around Sydney’s efforts to protect his new family—symbolic son John, and, to a lesser extent, symbolic daughter/daughter-in-law Clementine—from catastrophes that could destroy it. In this context, the vitally sleazy villain of the piece, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), scans as a perverse variation of the schoolyard friend of whom your parents don’t approve. John trusts Jimmy for reasons that baffle both Sydney and the audience, calling upon Sydney’s non-traditional parenting skills to set everyone’s figurative houses in order.
Hard Eight’s power comes from its refusal to over-emphasize this familial subtext, as well as from the characters’ complementing refusal, or inability, to give voice to their needs. John’s admiration and love for Sydney are immediately apparent and moving for how John expresses them in sideways gestures, offering Sydney a drink or a snack from a motel room that the latter basically paid for to begin with, or filming his eventual wedding to Clementine for Sydney to watch later, which the latter does, alone, with a drink, in another dingy motel room. A direct catharsis arrives near the end of the film, when Sydney tells John with startling frankness that he loves him like a son. There’s one qualification though: The men have this exchange over the phone, yearning for intimacy from a safe distance. That very human irony is the great, prevailing obsession of Anderson’s career.
Availability: Hard Eight is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.