Oddness Rings True In ‘Hard Eight’

‘Hard Eight” is another in the continuing series of neo-noir studies involving damaged people struggling to get by despite inherent character flaws and sometimes shady pasts.

Yet as written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Hard Eight” ends up being something special. Credit that both to Anderson’s minimalist filmmaking style and to his sense of character, which blends a feel for the illogic with basic survival mechanisms.

The film revolves around Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), the aging good Samaritan who once was an East Coast hood (and hit man, maybe?) and who now is seeking redemption. He finds his chance in John (John. C. Reilly) and Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), two not-so-bright societal fringe-dwellers whose potential for losing is helped along by their own tastes for self-destruction, by the dazzling glare of Las Vegas lights and by the predatory instincts of a would-be tough guy named Jimmy (the always reliable Samuel L. Jackson).

It is Jimmy who forces Sydney ultimately to confront his past and to look hard at the man he both was and always will be.

If there is a message to “Hard Eight,” it is purely existential: You can’t outrun your past, but you can make a difference. And Sydney does just that.

The very strength of the film is what may turn many people off, namely the odd behavior that each of the characters (but especially Clementine) displays. But that oddness represents exactly the kind of self-destruction that certain people resort to in real life.

Think about it: How many people do you know who, when faced with the prospect of happiness, sabotage their very chances of attaining it?

As for Sydney, he’s clearly too good to be real, and to a relative extent everybody knows that. Nevertheless, he is genuine in his desire to do the right thing, and this ends up benefitting John and Clementine, surprising Jimmy and ultimately forcing Sydney himself to forsake his comfortable lifestyle.

One of the film’s most refreshing aspects is its limited use of comedy. Not interested in making the latest rip-off of “Pulp Fiction,” Anderson is more inclined to explore the harsher side of reality.

To this end, he constructs a number of memorable scenes - where Sydney tells John that he loves him, for example, or where Clementine resists leaving a hotel room where a “hostage” has been handcuffed to the bed. And then there’s the scene where Sydney bets $2,000 that he can roll the hard eight (two fours).

Anderson is helped immensely by his cast. Reilly, who specializes in smaller films (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Georgia”), is perfect as John. Paltrow clearly is more comfortable playing ordinary women or period-piece characters (as she did in “Emma”), but she does credibly in a role more suited to Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Jackson is… well, at this point we all know what he can do.

Charismatic, powerfully articulate and impossible not to watch, Jackson is one of the top actors at work today - and one, by the way, who is unafraid to take on a small, unsympathetic role as he does here.

Still, it is Hall who makes the difference. Wearing one of those faces that seems familiar but you don’t know why (he’s had minor parts in movies such as “Say Anything” and in sitcoms such as “Seinfeld”), Hall boasts talent in abundance. And his Sydney is the rarest of characters, the guardian angel with a tarnished shield who, when it comes time for action, doesn’t hesitate for a second. Rated R ***

Other recent releases:

Inventing the Abbotts ***

With a cast that is far too beautiful for real life, this period-piece (1957) romance would seem to be some sort of fantasy straight from the pages of, say, Mirabella magazine. But even with the pretty-boy looks of Billy Crudup and Joaquin Phoenix (the late River’s baby brother) as the Holt brothers, and the likes of Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler as the rich Abbott girls whom they lust for, this ends up being a small, patiently paced and touching story about love and loss in a small town. Especially good are Phoenix and Kathy Baker as his all-knowing mother. Rated R

Thieves ***

Director Andre Techine resorts to an unusual, maze-like narrative to tell the story of a family, one of whom is a police detective and the others who are car thieves. When a busted heist results in the death of the detective’s brother, Techine studies the events from several points of view - the self-hating cop’s, his young lover’s, the dead man’s son, etc. Not always clear, and ultimately something of a non-mystery, the movie benefits both from a sense of irony and the several good performances - especially by Daniel Auteuil and Catherine Deneuve. Rated R

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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