Family, the hard way

I have walked out of a film once in my life and sat through a great deal more that I probably shouldn’t have (Lady in the Water (2006) comes to mind). That one time occurred when a friend of mine, who was a fan of kung-fu films but lacked the healthy irony such fandom requires, had convinced me to attend a screening of Jackie Chan’s Mr. Nice Guy (1997). Chan — who, for the record I usually find to be relatively charming and entertaining — plays a Chinese chef who gets embroiled in a drug bust, or something like that. The opening sequence was so choppy and poorly executed that I had to put the kibosh on that viewing. Plus, Boogie Nights (1997) was playing in the next theatre over and it was about porn.

It turned out that Boogie Nights wasn’t really about porn, which was disappointing. It turned out to be a film about family and acceptance. It turned out to be pretty amazing, which was less disappointing. I immediately began to check up on the film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson, and learned that, despite thinking that I had discovered a new filmmaker that evening, I had actually had his very first film, Hard Eight (1996) sitting in my collection for quite some time (on VHS. Yikes).

Back in the day, when video stores were abundant, I used to make a regular practice out of scrapping together some cash and trolling their aisles. I would watch anything and everything with an interesting cover. One day I stumbled across Hard Eight, starring Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m not even sure what made me pick it up. The cover was unassuming. Just images of each of the actor’s faces with some dice next to them. I must have thought that there would be some nudity (Give me a break! I was still in high school, after all). It was billed as a casino thriller, but turned out to be a far cry from it.

I mentioned earlier that Boogie Nights was about family — specifically the idea that blood doesn’t necessarily make a family and that one can find family anywhere, even in the porn industry — but the theme is pervasive in Anderson’s work. Magnolia (1999), his epic follow-up to Boogie Nights, is filled with broken and makeshift families. The protagonist of Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is dealing with an overbearing gaggle of sisters who have, in a way, created a monster, and There Will Be Blood (2007) places a fair amount of weight on Daniel Plainview’s (poor) relationship with his son and his imposter brother. It is no surprise that Hard Eight is really about family as well.

The film’s protagonist, Sydney (Which was the original name of the film and, for some time after the film’s release, the only title Paul would acknowledge), played by the immensely talented Phillip Baker Hall, meets a young man named John (John C.Reilly) sitting outside of a diner just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. John is down on his luck and Sydney kindly, if not somewhat randomly, offers to buy him a cup of coffee and give him a cigarette. As the story goes, the scene that follows, the scene where John confesses to Sydney that he’s been in Vegas trying to win enough money to pay for his mother’s funeral over coffee and cigarettes, is a scene Anderson wrote after dropping out of film school, having only been there for a few weeks. He says that he left and got his tuition returned to him after turning in a copy of a scene from David Mamet’s Hoffa (1992) and getting a C+.

Sydney teaches John how to get by in Vegas, a city where, if one is crafty enough, one doesn’t really need to get a “real job.” The Vegas that Anderson portrays here is not the glitz and glam that we’re used to. Instead, we get a glimpse of the real deal, Fremont Street at noon. Sparsely-lit casinos occupied by the sad and desperate.  

Time passes with John and Sydney becoming fast friends. A pretty waitress named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) catches John’s eye, which catches Sydney’s. Sydney gets to know her and discovers that she’s not unlike John, wide-eyed, damaged. He also notices that John’s been hanging around with a less desirable companion named Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), who knows a little something about Sydney’s past.

Eventually, more than halfway through the film, the plot catches up with the synopsis on the back of the VHS sleeve with John and Clementine finding themselves hiding in a hotel room with an unconscious man tied to their bed. How they got there is almost inconsequential. What is of great consequence is how Anderson uses this familiar scenario (disposing of the witness) to reveal a great deal about his characters, letting them drive the scene in unexpected directions.

When Sydney had last left Clementine and John they were preparing to head out shopping after Sydney had agreed to take Clementine in. He had discovered that she was occasionally going home with her customers for extra cash and took pity on her. Now, Sydney stands outside of a hotel room begging John to let him in after John himself had called him for help with a “situation.” John eventually lets him in, but only after Sydney promises not to be mad.

During this crucial scene we learn of John’s pliable good nature. He wants only to please those around him, and he’s just a touch stupid. We see the depths of Clementine’s damage, as the situation is explained to Sydney, the disappointed father. Hours before the hotel room incident, John and Clem had gotten married. Shortly thereafter, Clem had picked up another man at the bar and gone to the hotel with him. When he didn’t pay her she called John. John, not knowing how to handle such a situation, called Jimmy. Jimmy’s advice was, needless to say, less than helpful.

Sydney takes care of things like a professional. The professional he used to be. But the key moment for him is in his reaction to John telling him about the marriage. For a moment Sydney’s weathered, stoic face betrays joy. Not only a proud father, but a man who senses a balance shift within himself, wrongs being righted.

We soon learn that Sydney is responsible for the death of John’s father. Again, the circumstances are not important. What Sydney does for John in the film’s beginning and in the final moments is what really matters. Sydney, having sent Clem and John away to safety, deals with Jimmy, who has discovered his secret and is threatening to tell John if Sydney doesn’t pay up. He takes care of Jimmy the only way he knows how; the old way.

Anderson has shown a remarkable ability to tell a familiar story in a unique manner throughout his entire career. Hard Eight may not be the flashiest nor the most epic, but there is brilliance is in its subtlety. It is a Vegas movie that isn’t about Vegas, a gangster movie that isn’t about gangsters. Mostly, though, it is a film about a father’s atonement. It’s about wanting better for your child. It’s about the moment when Sydney, returning to the very same diner where he first  met John after “taking care” of Jimmy, looks down and notices a spot of blood on his shirt cuff. Gently, he pulls down his jacket sleeve to cover it up.

Kevin Mattison is co-editor of The Idler, as well as being an occassional film review contributor for Real Detroit Weekly, a filmmaker and videographer. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmmattison.

5 Responses to “Family, the hard way”
  1. Janeymac says:

    Great read! I love PTA’s films, just need ‘There will be blood’ to complete my fankid collection! I hadn’t thought about the ‘family theme’ angle before. Ace post.

  2. Janeymac says:

    You probably know this one but just in case, – good updates re PTA film news.

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