You can tell a lot about a filmmaker from their first movie. In some cases, a first-time director is doing the best they can with very little, trying to demonstrate their talent and somehow shape a competent movie. Just look at James Cameron’s unfortunate debut, Piranha II: The Spawning. Another notable example is Martin Scorsese’s breakout work, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, which feels like a trial run for the themes of Catholicism, neighborhood gangsterism, and loyalty that would mark his later works. You can tell that, right from the start, he was incapable of making a boring, impersonal movie.
On the other hand, there are directors like Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and George Lucas, whose first films announced their arrival, demonstrated their talents and obsessions, and all but declared, Here I Am! Add Paul Thomas Anderson to that list of first-timers who went roaring out the gate after just one movie.
Before making Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood (among other great films), Anderson first arrived on the film scene with Hard Eight in 1996. It’s a small film made with confidence and skill, featuring a cast that absolutely slays their roles and brings Anderson’s funny, unpredictable screenplay to life.
We meet John (played by John C. Reilly in his first starring role) at what appears to be the low point of his life; he’s broke, alone, and squatting in front of a diner, seemingly defeated. An older man named Sydney (played by Phillip Baker Hall) takes pity on John, buys him coffee and, while sitting at a booth, casually offers to change the course of his life.
The opening shot is perfection, a controlled, long-held gaze that both sets up and (in retrospect), encapsulates the entire story. Sydney does not waste John’s time and, in the same way with us, neither does the movie; there isn’t a scene here that doesn’t move the story forward. Sydney, full of secrets and fatherly advice, tells John only what he needs to know on a moment-to-moment basis. Also in Sydney’s world is a sweet, vulnerable casino waitress (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and a cheerful, dangerous figure named Jimmy (played by Samuel L. Jackson).
This is one of those great films where anything can happen, as there’s no formula in place. Character, story, and mood are the driving forces. Nothing here feels inevitable.
Despite the presence of Jackson and the bursts of violence in the third act, this isn’t one of those post-Pulp Fiction Tarantino-wannabees. Anderson’s ability to weave a great story and place his audience in a vivid world is the driving force. Hard Eight suggests that who we fall under the influence of is the one who guides and shapes us.
Hall gives a master-class performance, portraying a man who thinks very carefully before he chooses each word. Sydney knows all the angles, a man seemingly in control of his destiny. John is a stark contrast: the pupil, the fool, and someone fumbling after approval.
Reilly is wonderful, both achingly vulnerable but so sweet and earnest you root for his character, even when his actions reveal how ill-equipped he is at navigating a hardened, grown-up world. This arrived a decade before Reilly became one of Hollywood’s most durable character actors and MVP comedy performers. He shines brightly here. So does Paltrow who, likewise, was a few years from breaking out and uses this opportunity to give a layered, always believable performance.
Jackson is in his element, displaying the fire in his eyes that marked his early work (he was just a few years removed from Pulp Fiction when he made this). A wild cameo appearance by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is another highlight.
The resolution of Sydney’s third act problem is not a misstep, exactly. Yet, it seems more of a genre requirement than a proper plot turn. It’s the only instance where Anderson’s imagination comes up short.
The final shot is a keeper; it’s subtle and quick but says so much. Taken as is, this a terrific film and a major find. As a representation of what a first-time director can do, it served as a calling card for a brazenly original film artist. (On Kanopy)
Rated R/101 Min.
Place Your Bets on an Overlooked Winner:
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s 2017 real-life thriller Molly’s Game, is one of those little-seen masterpieces that gets lost in the overloaded Christmas movie season and never finds the audience it deserves. It stars Jessica Chastain in a fierce, captivating turn, as Molly Bloom, the Olympic skier who became highly sought after for her high stakes poker games. Idris Elba and a never-better Kevin Costner are terrific in supporting turns. We all know Sorkin is a gifted writer (he wrote A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and TV’s “The West Wing”) but his directorial debut has the energy and style of a highly caffeinated David Fincher film. Frequent readers of my column know I don’t give out a lot of five-star reviews, but I certainly did for this one. (On Netflix)
One More Sleeper from a First Timer:
When you open the same weekend as Titanic and Tomorrow Never Dies, you’re bound to get left behind. That’s what happened to director Gore Verbinski’s 1997 debut, Mousehunt, a wild, fiendish, live-action Disney comedy that found its audience much later. Nathan Lane and Lee Evans winningly play the Smuntz brothers, who battle a tiny rodent for domination of their massive home. Yes, it’s silly, but full of brilliant slapstick set pieces and family-friendly gags that are funny enough for keiki and parents alike. (On Hulu)
Photos courtesy IMDB