Black screen; the sound of a truck starting. Fade in on a drab morning, the parking lot of a roadside diner, and the truck itself, a long freighter that hauls itself into, across, and out of a Super-35 frame that, for one satisfying instant, it perfectly fills. As the engine roar recedes, a trenchcoated back looms in frame right, pauses a beat, then approaches the diner, camera following at elbow level. There is a young man seated on the ground near the diner entrance, head bowed, legs drawn up to his chest, like a fetus that has learned to sit up. The man in the trenchcoat stops and speaks to him—an older man's voice: “Want a cup of coffee? Want a cigarette?” The young man takes his time looking up, as if he'd been somewhere else, and had already accepted that in that place he would never be spoken to again. He can see the man who's standing over him; except for a blurred reflection in the nearby door, we still haven't.
Gaston Monescu once observed that beginnings are always difficult. With movies, just the opposite is often true. The audience is eager to be caught up in something—a story, a vision, a mood—or they wouldn't be there. It's child's play to turn on the engine; riding out the trip is hard. Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson's feature debut, has a classical beaut of a beginning. The better, rarer news is that, having confidently taken the wheel, Anderson never loses his grip or his way. Like its opening shot, Hard Eight keeps us wanting to see more, and is equally satisfying in the ways that it does and doesn't permit that to happen.
We get to put a face on the older man soon enough. It stares at us in closeup from the other side of a booth in the diner as he, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), and the young man, John (John C. Reilly), exchange names and then get their conversational footing. John, looking back in closeup, is apprehensive, puzzled, sullenly combative. Sydney advises, “Never ignore a man's courtesy,” and draws him out enough to learn that he's broke and in need of $6,000 with which to bury his mother. He tried to win the money in Las Vegas. Sydney hints that he knows something about that sort of thing, and asks John what he would do if he had $50. John considers: “Eat?” And how long could he live on $50? Sydney answers his own question: “I would bet not long.” “You would bet?” John answers, pissed, feeling patronized. And the camera, which has mostly considered the men in separate closeups, now resumes its vassal-like posture somewhere behind Sydney, then curves forward to frame him in profile as he rises, gathers up the check for the coffee, and reiterates his offer of a ride back to Vegas, $50, and a lesson in what to do with it. The small voluptuousness of the visual punctuation is appropriate: Sydney is in fact placing his bet, on John.
I'd like to call Hard Eight the most engrossing neo-noir since Pulp Fiction, but that would probably just buy trouble for it. Although its cast includes Samuel L. Jackson as a hooligan with philosophical pretensions, Anderson's film doesn't aspire to the ecstatic riffs and grand-guignol black comedy of Tarantino's, and its keynote action is drawing on a cigarette rather than drawing a gun. But Anderson shares the T man's respect for conversation, and the conviction that the right actor making the right lines his own can be inexhaustibly thrilling. He also understands, and knows how to exploit, the pull of the unknown: the undisclosed motive, the suspected but unrevealed connection between people, places, times, events—the gap deliberately overleapt so that a narrative equivalent of negative space holds the dramatis personae in their orbits and energizes every second of their doing and not-doing.
The greatest pull is exerted by the character Sydney. The film begins with his enigmatic entry and continues to be fascinated by his identity and agenda long after John has stopped wondering. He's not, as the younger man speculates, a guy with a St. Francis complex or a fag cruising for a pickup. Conditioned by decades of noir plots, we watch the early scenes anticipating that he is recruiting John for some ultimate fall-guy role. What he does instead is to make good on his offer, taking John to Vegas and, in effect, enabling him. Following Sydney's periodic instructions (after each of which the older man fades into the distance), John runs his stake up to $2,000, a line of credit, and a comp'ed room in the hotel. Syd drops by the room to say goodbye and ask, “So John, what are you going to do?” And John, whose life had been stalled before Syd's cues to action, realizes he's still at a loss to what his next action should be. (How long can you live on $2,000?) Syd says he's going downstairs to gamble. “Can I watch?” John asks quietly. Okay. Fade out, and a title card: RENO, NEVADA—TWO YEARS LATER.
This is the first, but won't be the last, disorienting lurch in the scenario. Two years later, Syd and John are some kind of team. Syd gambles; John—we don't know what John does. Both have caught the eye of Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cocktail waitress in a casino bar who recognizes Sydney's air of centered authority—”Captain,” she calls him—and finds John and his puppy-dog allegiance to Syd “cute.” She's a hooker on the side, and in a double bind: getting caught would lose her her waitressing job, but failing to respond to the customers' flirtations would get her fired, too. As with John at the beginning, Syd sits her down for coffee and a sharing of confidences. (At the end of the diner scene with Syd and John, the camera had lingered to frame the now-empty booth, the window beyond with its oddly auspicious view of a highway on the Western horizon, and the two coffee cups and ashtray—as if this were a secular altar where some rite had just taken place. The same sort of Bressonian attention to cups and plates attends the Syd/Clementine confab.) Clementine, too, is ostensibly going somewhere, saving up to open a beauty salon, yet within a moment of that declaration is asking Syd—but really herself—”Why the fuck would I open a beauty salon?” Syd takes her back to his suite but, as with John, doesn't fuck her.
A pattern has emerged. Syd, a man of indeterminate past who acknowledges a grown son and daughter whose whereabouts he no longer knows, has parented two sweet, dumb castaways. (Reilly and Paltrow are both superb at catching the precise blend of naïveté and fecklessness in their characters: each is just smart enough to know what they need to lie about, and desperate enough to believe the lies until the lies die gasping for fresh inspiration.) But this situation, once established, is jeopardized the moment the newly made couple get out of his sight. We'll leave the specifics unstated for now—their disclosure in the film is, of course, as mesmerizingly tortuous in coming as the alteration is abrupt—but it is enough to say that violence, extortion, and the prospect of ugly death figure largely in the mix. We are also surprised, at the eleventh hour, to be proffered a motive for Sydney's adoption of John. By this time, such a revelation—which a conventional noir would have sprung in the second reel—constitutes as much of a shock and disorientation as the film's well-judged lacunae. Indeed, so absolute is our acceptance that Syd is what he is and does what he does, period, that we even doubt what we've been told. It changes everything. It changes nothing.
Anderson's eye (abetted by cinematographer Robert Elswit) is impeccably assured, resolutely avoiding all the garish clichés of Vegas-Reno stories, maintaining a modest, direct clarity in its coverage of the characters' passages, and deploying a supple Steadicam in the interests of fluidity and alertness rather than self-serving display. One moment is exemplary: At the end of Syd and Clementine's late-night talk, an eruption of sudden, ineffectual anger at a nearby table interrupts them. The camera pans slightly left of Clementine, racks focus onto the unknown night folk, then refocuses on Clementine as she makes a what-was-that-all-about face. We never know what that was all about. These things just happen, is all. There are stories all over the place.
Hard Eight wouldn't be the compelling story it is without Philip Baker Hall as its center of gravity and values. Anderson wrote the script with Baker in mind, and it's about time somebody did. Thirteen years ago, Hall, preeminently a man of the theater, gave a harrowing, profane performance in Robert Altman's one-man show about Richard Nixon in San Clemente exile, Secret Honor. Unthinkably, he was allowed to slip back into effective anonymity (his best role of the past decade was a “Seinfeld” appearance as a Javert-like tracer of unreturned library books). His Sydney is a tone-perfect triumph, every bit the tour de force Nixon was, but even more challenging because stripped of psychotic bravura and historical context. In one of only two moments of violence, he leans over to deliver an expertly efficient, tactically necessary chop to a man's neck, without breaking stride or his running dialogue. From hotel room to casino to restaurant booth to his car, he makes his Nevada rounds like a Flying Dutchman without an opera; just to watch him walk among the gaming tables, his gait even, impertubable, is one of the privileged moments of the cinema. May we not have to wait thirteen years for the next Philip Baker Hall film.