Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut. Philip Baker Hall plays a professional gambler who takes a young man played by John C. Reilly under his wing. As the story unfolds, we meet a casino waitress played by Gwyneth Paltrow and a hustling security guard played by Samuel Jackson.
I love gambling movies. I could watch a whole film chronicling Hall’s professional gambling routine. Anderson limits these details to an early sequence where Hall shows Reilly how to game the casino’s comp system to get a meal and room.
Instead, the story focuses on the paternal relationship between Hall and Reilly. Hall brings a tired gravitas to his part that convinces. Behind every look you sense years of hard-earned experience. Reilly’s performance feels less revelatory because he’s played similar characters in later films, but Anderson proved the first to hone and exploit that man-child persona.
Compared to Anderson’s later efforts, Hard Eight pales in scope but not in quality. Anderson’s talent for humanizing broken outsiders began here. The world of Keno bars, hotel rooms, and crap tables feels authentic and the bittersweet story of redemption resonates. I loved it.