With Triple Nine looking all vaguely neo-noirish and me having already reviewed director John Hillcoat’s notable films, I’ve decided to look at a handful of films from the last heyday of the neo-noir: the 1990s. I wish I hadn’t already reviewed Seven, because then I could really pull a “seven, eight, nine” joke right about now. Oh well.
Paul Thomas Anderson loves him some Robert Altman, and he damn sure wants you to know it. Boogie Nights is his Nashville, Magnolia his Short Cuts, There Will Be Blood his McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Inherent Vice his The Long Goodbye. Both directors are united in their attenuation to social ennui and their sweltering pop fantasia takes on the perils of American fiction and everyday life propelled on the back of scorching camera motions (Magnolia’s most famous sequence plays like a cocaine nightmare version of Altman’s prodigious love of zooming his camera into every nook and cranny of the Earth he could overturn).
Considering Anderson’s cinematic verbosity (and his occasional garrulousness) behind the camera, the astringent simplicity of Hard Eight is a retroactive riposte to his later work as well as a comparatively provincial shrieking blast of sleazy, stalking cool that trepidatiously wanders outside of its cool zone as the film progresses. It’s all the slicker because we don’t notice how sullen and neck-grabbing things are turning before our very eyes. Even in Anderson’s debut, his habit of secretly, almost serendipitously falling headfirst into a toxic milieu as zoneless drifters struggling to keep their heads above water is fully present. This time, it’s in Reno, a US capital of broken dreams. John C. Reilly plays a down-on-his-luck nugget of pure schlub smacked into shape by the syrupy-oily Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) who charms John into accepting a protege status in the world of offbeat, low-stakes gambling. Sydney’s motives are deceptive but not inherently deleterious, and if he isn’t a grifter, fallout might just be an occupational hazard of this kind of life.
Hard Eight inhabits the perplexing but amiable paradox of being Anderson’s most judicious and scrupulous motion picture, his most tightly reined in, as well as his most nimble. An air of mystery suffuses the screenplay as Anderson permeates the neon-hued dreamlands of the casino floors with a gliding camera that soothes you so readily you can’t believe it might harbor ill will or mischievous intentions when you aren’t looking. The same can be said of the loping jazz score, a lightly plucked interloper into this backalley world of tentative relationships quietly hurtling into a state of panicked, unexpected dread. It’s a peculiar atmosphere of uneasy family relations as the two main males and waitress Clementine (Gwenyth Paltrow in a disarmingly innocent performance) pass the days away as an atypical family hewn from unexpected needs and unfulfilled desires.
And all through it, Anderson attunes to an aura of laidback chill so slippery it seems to run away with us. The pop-art archetype of the casino buttresses snappy-melancholy conversations with an august air of jazzlike improvisation as scenes seem to float by us in the spirit of bottled-up ’50s and ’60s morality plays like The Hustler. Anderson withholds, gliding around us and slipping us a few drinks to lull us into a submission that proves pointedly fraudulent as he turns the tables midway through the film in a skin-tight hostage scenario that swoops right in under our noses. It’s a study in stasis crashing into kinesis, but with the momentous crawl of the human drama in the earlier half and the latter half’s strangling air of pasts catching up to make amends, we question where the stasis ends and the kinesis begins.
Years later, it’s hard to call Hard Eight Anderson’s best film, but after two decades of increasingly Byzantine, boldface works, the slightness and self-sustaining clemency of this deceptive palette cleanser is an altogether refreshing curio from a bygone time when cinema could exist on its own terms. Of all his films, it expends the least energy imparting morsels of thought to us, and perhaps as a result, it’s among the smartest of his pictures. His later works are feral, rabid dogs, and this one, awash in shadowplay, is all feline strut.