Meet Sydney: On Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1996)

|MH Rowe|

Philip Baker Hall with cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Hard Eight plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, January 21st, through Tuesday, January 23rd. Visit for tickets and more information.

Some films are short stories; others are novels. The difference is not a question of length or running time, for even a novel can have the soul of a short story, while a short story can be a novel in miniature. A novel must possess, as an essential characteristic, a bit of slackness; it’s multi-focal; its B plots rival its A plot, with byways and digressions both germane and irrelevant that make for paradoxically essential business, even if they take time away from the main event; a novel gathers disparate material and scenes and timelines and tries to make a world, at 100 or 1000 pages. The flaws of great novels usually enhance them, for the beauty and suggestiveness of the attempt. Short stories, on the other hand, can be perfect, in the sense of complete, because they aim for a singleness of effect with a limited scope; they don’t exactly make a world but instead a crucial moment or two (or three) that suggests one. Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature film, Hard Eight (1996), has the soul of a short story; it’s the only truly modest film he’s made.

What’s odd about Hard Eight is that Anderson made it first as a short film called Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), and Cigarettes & Coffee has the soul of a novel. The short-film version has five main characters in three separate but connected stories, each of which implies different worlds colliding and carrying on with varying dramatic effects. One is about marriage and money and feels bittersweet, another is about love, betrayal, and murder and feels ironically tragic, almost Twilight Zone-ish, and the last one concerns an unpleasant, violent man and feels scary. The feature-length Hard Eight, by contrast, has four main characters and one story that at its crucial moment concerns Sydney Brown (Philip Baker Hall). Everything comes down to Sydney, despite the excellent portrayals of his friend and, eventually, surrogate son, John (John C. Reilly), his eventual surrogate daughter, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his vulgar nemesis, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson).

Philip Baker Hall looking directly at the viewer.

The plot of Hard Eight emanates directly from the film’s characters—from Sydney, really—rather than from some MacGuffin or ploy that sets its events in motion. If there is a discrete incident to incite the action, it remains forever offscreen and entirely unknown until the latter half of the film. Again, it has everything to do with Sydney and the mess of reasons that motivate him to approach, in the opening shot of the film, a dejected and apparently homeless John, who is crouched beside the door of a roadside coffee shop. The shot-reverse shot closeups of Sydney and John’s first conversation establishes Hard Eight’s unhurried yet sure and determined pace. 

Without money, unable to pay for his mother’s funeral, John puts up a belligerent front before accepting Sydney’s help. As Sydney says, in a phrase that has a whiff of menace, “It’s always good to meet a new friend.” He drives John to Las Vegas, where Sydney teaches him how to get a comped room and how to behave in general like a professional gambler, which Sydney himself appears to be. This is a theme and a difficulty in the film. Sydney wants John—and soon Clementine, a cocktail waitress and prostitute—to be independent and free but also to accept his help, accept apprenticeship under him. He needs them to submit, no matter how forgiving, generous, and understanding he is. 

Reilly plays John to perfection as a puzzled loser. He’s naive, eager, and ready to do what’s required, even if it means friendship with a man like the bombastic Jimmy, whom Sydney clearly dislikes. 

John C. Reilly looking off camera.

Where Reilly uses his puzzlement to great hangdog and comic effect, Paltrow gets an emotionally expansive performance out of pained facial expressions. She almost always has her mouth open and tends to glance away, expressing a feeling only to pull it back again. It’s moving and totally beguiling. Clementine hasn’t lost her innocence, either, despite her emphatic assertion that she is not a person who’s putting herself through school and dreaming of self-transformation. Instead she’s living, paying for her car, apartment, and cat food, making sure her credit doesn’t get “fucked.” She doesn’t do “anything [she] doesn’t want to do.” She affectionately calls Sydney “Captain,” and after he sees her leaving a client, she remarks with obvious shame, “You look at me as a piece of shit now, because you saw me coming out of that room.” That’s what father figures do from time to time, deliberately or not—make you gaze into the worst mirror. A good father sits in judgment, perhaps, except that he, whoever he is, won’t let you indulge the satisfactions of self-punishment. That’s Sydney through and through. “No, I don’t [think that],” he says. It’s a testament to Hall’s performance that we so readily believe him. He attempts everything with careful precision. 

Gwyneth Paltrow looking off camera.]

In the face of Clementine’s agonies and John’s neediness, Sydney is almost courtly. You never see him out of his suit, even in the one shot that shows him asleep face-first on his bed—on top of the covers, no less, as if being under them would concede his self-possession. He doesn’t like foul language, though not in a stuffy way. When he does curse, Hall manages to sound unnatural, like he has no practice. For Clementine’s sake but not for any resolute moral reason, Sydney laments that she is obliged to flirt with customers to keep her job and says she doesn’t need to do that with him. In a later scene, he dismisses the idea that he might want to pay her for sex, saying, “Do you think that?” When she says she isn’t sure if he wanted sex from her, he retorts, “Well, you should know before you ask a question like that.” When Clementine continues, trying to explain how it seemed to her, he interrupts her: “Don’t let it seem that way,” as if the matter of her power and conduct in the world is all a question of confident gambling technique. Even in his dealings with John, the movement from innocence to experience (a noirish theme if ever there were one) appears to be a matter of competent method and self-assured procedure: all bluffs and sure bets. Thinking better of himself, though, Sydney tells Clementine, “I understand how you could ask a question like that.” He grasps that he could be like any other man, a menace or a client, instead of the father he’s trying patiently to be. Sydney, we soon and undramatically learn, is estranged from his own son and daughter, who are around the same age as John and Clementine.

The essential point is that Sydney is a non-adaptive creature. He acts like a smooth operator, but the conditions are controlled. The suit he always wears comes to seem dignified as well as self-defensive. When, at the midpoint of the film, a truly noirish scene unfolds, Sydney loses his cool. Awoken by the phone, he rushes in the middle of the night to a hotel room where John has bloodied and handcuffed a client who refused to pay Clementine for sex. Sydney curses awkwardly and insists that John and Clementine do as he directs them. They balk and negotiate, seeming inclined to fuss and refuse. Affronted and embarrassed, Clementine wants her money. “Humble yourself!” Sydney says. He wants her to recognize that she can’t simply insist her way through the situation. The viewer later realizes that this competent man has probably shouted the same thing at himself when he considered how to unfuck his own life. He wants to be independent; he wants to depend on something. He has chosen surrogate children to nurture rather than seek rapprochement with his own. Or if he tried with his own children and it failed, he seems to have given it up and tried a simulated if self-serving alternative. 

John then confesses that he and Clementine married that afternoon. They’d been seeing each other anyway, unbeknownst to Sydney. John gives Sydney the wedding on tape, a recording they made for him. Virtual attendance for a simulacrum dad. 

After convincing the newlyweds to leave for an impromptu honeymoon in Niagara Falls, Sydney remains behind in Nevada to ensure there is no problem from the incident in the hotel. He promises all the money he has to help them. Jimmy turns up instead, brandishing a gun and derisively calling Sydney “Mr. Cool” when really Sydney is “just an old hood” from back east. He explains that he knows Sydney shot John’s father in the face in Atlantic City, presumably years before. The whole movie shifts around this fulcrum, long coming but unguessed. From the beginning—and now so clearly in a self-serving way, however magnanimous—Sydney sought out and helped John. He never says why. Perhaps malignant guilt or shame or an urgency to address what is past. Jimmy demands $10,000 to keep this information from John. 

Philip Baker Hall and Samuel Jackson facing each other, with Samuel L. Jackson examining the contents of an envelope.]

The conclusion of this attempted extortion is the most predictable but frightening part of the film. As if to confirm everything murderous that has been suggested about him, Sydney breaks into Jimmy’s house and waits for him in the dark. When Jimmy returns home with a woman after a night of boastful gambling, Sydney doesn’t hesitate or give any speeches. He also doesn’t shoot Jimmy once; he shoots him six times, four of these shots rapid addendums to the first and more deliberate two. The first couple probably killed Jimmy. The final four are Sydney’s furious punctuation.  

This is why Hard Eight is a short story. The tale it tells serves in its entirety as a postscript to the malign and violent life Sydney must have lived before, when he shot John’s father in the face. We glimpse that life again when he murders Jimmy. After the killing, Sydney flees town. At the roadside coffee shop where he first met John, he tugs his coat sleeve down to conceal a smear of blood on his shirt cuff. I want to say this obvious bit of symbolism feels like the work of a first-time director, only it suits the look on Hall’s face so well. Sydney has not atoned or redeemed himself at all. Aiding John and Clementine—he told John “I love you like you were my own son”—and protecting that relationship by murdering another man, Sydney has done what he set out to do: “all I could for John and for myself.” He’s constructed a moral universe, a cosmos in which he is obliged to help a man and a woman he essentially manipulated into letting him help and love them. It’s tempting to think that now maybe, he could be redeemed by the long practice of caring for others. Consider the great distance he would have to go. Consider just how self-serving is his sense of justice. What a generous and awful man. But even a selfish heart is capable of great and beautiful things. 

Edited by Finn Odum

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