P.T. Anderson dropped out of New York University’s Film program in 1989 after attending only two classes. As a gag, just prior to leaving, he submitted pages to his screenwriting class from David Mamet’s 1992 crime drama Hoffa to see what would happen. He got a C-minus. Anderson then went on to write his first major short film, Cigarettes and Coffee. It was shot on a borrowed camera, and funded by the money he saved from dropping out of NYU. It was also the short that would evolve into his first full-length feature film, Hard Eight.
Like all of Anderson’s films, Hard Eight is an intimate character study of an old-timer named Sydney (played by the brilliant Phillip Baker Hall) who approaches a down-and-out loser named John (John C. Reilly) and tries to help him pull himself together. Sydney offers to buy him a cup of coffee, lends him a cigarette, and then proceeds to give him advise on how to cheat a Las Vegas casino. Sydney’s tips work exceptionally well, and John is comped with a free hotel room and pulled out of his slump and into good fortune and success. The question that must be asked at this point is: Why is Sydney doing all of this for John?
Two years go by, and a few more characters fall into the mix, including a cocktail waitress and prostitute named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a sleazy, ominous man named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). Sydney is a man who studies people, and Jimmy is someone that he knows is not to be trusted. His ability to read the kind of man Jimmy is reflects that there is more to Sydney than meets the eye, and that perhaps his reasons for helping John, and later on Clementine, are deeper and more complex than he would have you believe. Anderson films many slow-motion shots from Sydney’s POV, displaying his tendency to examine and study those around him. He allows these characters to talk, think, and feel as he takes him time reaching the scene where Sydney’s pretense is revealed.
In one brief and intimate scene, Sydney’s entire persona is unfolded, and his motives uncovered. He is a man who harbors immense guilt and loneliness, and in order to partially compensate for his past, and the demons that haunt him, he feels a tremendous obligation to help the son of his victim. He has had a great deal of time to think, and when Jimmy reveals that he knows the truth about his past, Anderson gives us the most significant POV shot in the film. Jimmy stares directly at the camera, a choice that is no doubt inspired by director Jonathan Demme, who uses this same shot in many of his films—particularly Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia—to emulate a sense of inferiority and trivialization. It makes us feel as if Jimmy is staring into our eyes, judging us just as he is judging Sydney, and I believe the shot is the turning point of the film. He says, “I know some things about Atlantic City”, and from then on, Sydney is not the calm, collected, wise man that he appeared to be for the first half of the movie.
Anderson and director of photography Robert Elswit, who have collaborated on every project, are able to create immense tension through the use of quick insert shots, which prove that authentic tension can be generated in the smallest details. One character handing something to another character, or a simple glance across the room becomes more suspenseful than explosions or gunfire, which recalls Hitchcock’s theory that a ticking bomb under a table is more dreadful than a bomb going off. These are the best parts of the film, when the characters are trying to understand each other, exchanging fascinatingly real dialogue and honest reactions.
Sydney’s past, for the most part, is left a mystery to us even once the end credits roll, but there are many things in his personality that we into and draw inferences from. As mentioned before, Anderson really allows his camera to allow the character to think, showing us long close-up shots. Along with his habitual studying of people around him, the actor Phillip Baker Hall is able to pull off a tremendous job of suggesting the slightest touches of sadness and regret. As the camera pans across the room from Sydney’s POV, it is clear that something is missing in his life, and I think that that something is family. He doesn’t have a family, and while he is helping John out of guilt, he is also piecing together some semblance of a family. John is the son he never had, and Clementine is the daughter-in-law. He introduces the two of them, and they fall in love. Sydney provides a form of communication in the film to two people who would otherwise be lost, creating a family made up of people without families.