DIRECTED BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON
STARRING: PHILIP BAKER HALL, JOHN C. REILLY, GWYNETH PALTROW, ROBERT RIDGELY, MELORA WALTERS, with PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN and SAMUEL L. JACKSON
I write this film review a tad predisposed to Paul Thomas Anderson, who I’m familiar with from his subsequent works. I’ve watched ‘Punch Drunk Love’ twice because I couldn’t get enough of its charm in one single time, and I ran through a quarter of the menacing ‘There will be Blood’ when I realized I was watching a man who I ought to watch from his very beginning for there was a pattern that was distinctly visible in his works – he writes his signature on every film he builds and curiously, the signature happens to be exactly that! With Paul Thomas Anderson, we witness a film develop perhaps exactly the way he built it, brick-by-brick, with his characters introduced in a vaguely chronological order in a progressive narrative structure that seldom takes a kink in time. There’s poise in his fluidity and there’s elegance, of course, wherefore we’re treated to an enthralling film that’s an experience in perspective.
In ‘Hard Eight’, we’re introduced to John Finnegan (John C. Reilly) right through the eyes of the veteran Sydney Brown (Philip Baker Hall) who insists on mentoring him on his way through Vegas after the young man had supposedly lost all his money trying to get some to arrange for his mother’s funeral. The genuineness of cause is not the reason behind philanthropy on the old man’s part – you know for sure that he’s not just Samaritan, but you wouldn’t care to ask. Not for an explanation, not for sensibility’s sake. You find yourself in John’s shoes in his conditional obedience, only to throw your caution to the winds just like him in course of time, for you become aware of the fact that you’re in good hands. That this, for once, is a man to whom you can entrust the whole of your seriousness, and sit back and watch things as they unfold when he thinks they ought to.
I love how Anderson picks his characters. We find that it’s not as much about individual complexities as opposed to an effective functioning of the whole, which, as we observe again, is more or less in the hands of a central, more empowered character who defines the past, present and, if possible, the future course of the film. In short, our story has a hero – one who accessorizes every other character and coaxes the plot into the course where it’s headed, watching everyone’s back while saving his own. Philip Baker Hall plays this personification of the writer-director on screen in an essay that doesn’t require as much effort as consistency. He’s the Harry Block of this deconstruction, except it’s a construct in his case where he gets to smart at the monument in the end, the blood on his cuff-link being lone evidence of the process. The rest are contextual stereotypes inclusive of the fleeting nemesis in Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), set-pieces in both Sydney’s and Anderson’s management.
With his distinctively long, continuous shots, gradually ascending background score and a screenplay that serves well to differentiate action from inaction transgressing with time, Anderson (curiously) reminds me of the then-yet-to-come Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker who defines his game and then tries to get ahead of it. Except in Anderson, we witness a hefty amount of focus and poise dedicated to a crafty rendition of a modest, down-to-earth script that doesn’t try too hard. He takes his game inning by inning, inciting neither anticipation of things to come, nor surprise when we’re past his share of revelations. And ‘Hard Eight’, needless to say, is an effortless tread on the fine line of perfect contentment on the shoulders of one who would emerge to be one of the steadiest of walkers on the tightrope called ‘conception’.