Philip Baker Hall stars as Sidney, a seemingly very lonely old man who spends his time hanging in casinos in Vegas or Reno. He’s got issues in his past, and you feel that he might have some regrets. His family left him, and he hasn’t much to look for. All he’s got is his experience. That may be why he chooses to help a stranger, sort of becoming his mentor. The guy is John, and he’s played by John C. Reilly, who was also cast in “Boogie Nights” as Dirk Diggler’s friend and co-star, Reed Rothchild. John is also more or less all alone, and he doesn’t even have experience or intelligence to fall back on. Sidney takes an interest in him and shows him some gambling tricks, and general things in life. I don’t want to give away too much, so let’s just say that the stakes increase when John gets into a messed up situation that also involves Clementine, a not-too-bright cocktail girl, and Jimmy, an arrogant hustler.
What makes this film special is how thoughtful, especially when you know that Anderson ain’t even 30 and that it’s his first film. I’m not saying that you got to be old to write a smart film, but usually, young hotshot don’t make films about lonely old men looking for redemption. Most indie films are about young dudes talking about movies and sex in their apartment. Anderson’s film is a surprisingly mature one, though. It’s not as impressive or exciting as “Boogie Nights”, but it’s interesting throughout. I liked the part when Sidney teaches John how to get a free hotel room and a meal with a 100 $ bill, and the whole “messed up situation”.
As for the direction, Anderson has a natural talent to handle camera shots and especially actors. Philip Baker Hall is a very talented actor who wears weariness on his face. Reilly is good too as his protégé. The film also attracted some big stars. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Clementine. Like her friends John and Sidney, there’s a melancholy to her, which is felt around most of the film. In fact, the only character who seems to be having fun is Jimmy, who is interpreted by the always enthusiastic Samuel L. Jackson. He brings well-needed humor and candor to the film as soon as he hits the screen. In the end, “Hard Eight” is an interesting, intimate film that could be seen as “Leaving Las Vegas”‘ younger brother.