There are very few movies that can successfully keep an audiences attention strictly with dialog and even fewer directors who can consistently do it. Paul Thomas Anderson is certainly a director who has shown his abilities with dialog and it all started with this film.
An older gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) finds a younger man named John (John C. Reilly) sitting outside of a diner. He invites him inside for a smoke and a cup of coffee. John is hesitant about accepting, but Sydney wins his trust. In the conversation that follows, we learn that John’s mother has just died and he tried to win $6,000 to bury her, but lost his money in the process. Sydney offers John the opportunity to learn how to make money at a casino and they make their way to Las Vegas.
Now, in a conventional film, Sydney would be a two-timer who had ulterior motives up his sleeves. I mean, how else would the plot move forward? Not this film though. Hard Eight just keeps on showing us Sydney talking to John and showing him how to take $150 dollars, make it seem like $2,000, and get a free room at a casino. This sequence is so precise in its dialog and action that it seems too easy to actually pull off. But it works nonetheless because we have become invested in what these characters say to each other and why they are spending time together at all.
Why is it that Sydney is helping John for no reason? That plot twist comes later. It’s two years later in Reno when a young waitress named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) serves drinks to Sydney in a bar area of another casino. Sydney appears to have lived in casinos for almost his entire adult life by the way he carries himself, lights his cigarettes, and plays KINO for hours. Clementine flirts with all of her customers because it is an unwritten rule for casino waitresses, but Sydney explains that she doesn’t have to with him.
John shows up at Sydney’s table with a shady character named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) and introduces them. After a few moments,
Sydney makes a remark about Jimmy and if he works in a parking garage, but Jimmy explains that he does consulting work as a security guard inside the casinos. These two will never see eye to eye throughout the picture. That night Sydney takes Clementine under his wing, similar to how he took in John, and tries to show her the ropes. He lets her stay in his hotel in John’s bed and gives her some clothes. When she asks if he wants to sleep with her, Sydney responds by saying, “You should know the answers to those kind of questions before you ask them.” He is a straight shooter and says exactly what is on his mind. There is never a moment that Sydney appears to hold back or lie to anyone.
The next day, John takes Clementine shopping and the story begins to take a few turns that are surprising. What comes out of the remaining third of the film is revealing of why Sydney and John act the way they do towards each other. Both of them are trying to fill voids in their lives and seem to have found the right person to fill them with. The final image of the movie is so telling of how Sydney has spent his life because he has been covering up secrets that nobody will ever know. Not because they can’t find out, but because he doesn’t want them to find out.