The fatherly figure Sydney is in a diner, discussing life with Clementine, a waitress and hooker. Sydney asks about Clementine’s goals, whether she’s saving money. She asks him about his grown kids.
Great writing, by Paul Thomas Anderson, and great acting, by Philip Baker Hall and Gwyneth Paltrow, make this scene credible, but its truth gets amplified 10,000 percent when, for no reason related to the plot of Hard Eight, a customer sitting a few booths behind Clementine pounds his table and says, loudly, “Fuck this. I’m out of here.” The guy gets up and storms away, leaving a woman behind crying. We don’t see them again.
Anderson’s movies are different. Hard Eight is his first feature film, from 1996, and it’s a small-scale version of the fucked-up-family theme he expands so hugely in, maybe especially, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master. In Hard Eight, Sydney lovingly takes a broke young man named John under his wing and teaches him to build a nice life small-time gambling. Events, as they will, spiral out of control, but Sydney does not. He stays calm and wise. When John screws up, Sydney helps him.
A bad influence on John, foul-mouthed Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson!), tells Sydney “you used to be a hard-ass.” He’s heard stories. That doesn’t sound like Sydney. When a vulgar lout (Phillip Seymour Hoffman!) talks trash at him over a craps table, Sydney simply looks back and bets $2,000 on hard eight. The bet loses, but the point gets made and the lout actually apologizes.
It’s part of Sydney’s slow reveal as a true hard-ass. Everything is slowly revealed in Hard Eight, including the mystery of why he helps John in the first place. Anderson lets the story and his characters’ motivations unspool organically. He is a master visual artist – his camera is an athlete; his sets breathe and have style – but we can say the same of other great directors. Anderson’s unique gift is truth. Truth serves his stories, painting the characters’ world. The lout apologizes. A guy bangs his table and storms away, because that’s the kind of thing that happens.