Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.

Ok, the featured $0.99 movie this week is a big, dumb, 90’s styled action flick by the name of Braven. For the record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with big, dumb action movies. I’ve adored my fair share of them over the years, so I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone else who does. As far as big, dumb action movies go, Braven (which stars Jason Momoa) looks like it might be more fun than most, so feel free to drop your buck on it if you’re so inclined.

That being said, it is summertime, so if you really want to see a big, dumb action movie, you should probably just to go to your local cineplex and catch one on the big screen. But if you’re looking for a nice, quiet movie at home, you might wanna check out the “Movies You Might Have Missed” section of iTunes and experience something a little out of the ordinary. So …

This week, Paul Thomas Anderson builds big time drama from the lives of small time gamblers in Hard Eight.

It’s Always Good To Meet A New Friend

Down, out, and stranded in the Nevada desert, John (John C. Reilly) sees his luck begin to change when an aging professional gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) takes him under his wing. Under Sydney’s tutelage, John learns what it takes to make a living at the tables of Reno’s skeezy casinos. But when John falls for a troubled waitress/prostitute named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), the pair find they both still have lessons to learn. Welcome to Paul Thomas Anderson’s astonishingly assured feature debut, Hard Eight (or Sydney for all you purists out there).

Hard Eight Never Ignore a Man’s Courtesy

If you’re not familiar with the backstory behind Anderson’s debut, you should know that Sydney is the film’s original title, and it’s still the one that Anderson himself prefers. The film didn’t become Hard Eight until late in post-production when the film’s distributor Rysher Entertainment (floundering from financial troubles and in need of a payday) hijacked the film from Anderson, recut it, and then renamed it. After a brutal behind the scenes battle, Anderson eventually convinced the studio to release his cut of the film, with the studio agreeing to do so only if it was released under their title, Hard Eight. 

Because of Rysher’s financial woes, that film didn’t see release until a full two years after it wrapped production. The release it got was limited to say the least. While Hard Eight was a hit with critics, it couldn’t really find a following until it hit video stores. That following was also quite limited at first, even if it was bolstered by the release of Anderson’s lauded followup Boogie Nights. Still, those that have found Hard Eight over the years have discovered not just a first-rate, character driven crime drama, but a breathtakingly confident film teeming with the themes and stylistic flourishes that have made Anderson’s movies so irresistibly seductive in the years since.

As in most of Anderson’s films, there is a plot of sorts in Hard Eight. One rife with profound insights into human nature, driven by the confounding complexities of familial relationships within adopted families, and possessed of moods and tones and intricate subtleties typically reserved for the works seasoned cinematic masters. Like most of Anderson’s films, plot is also all but irrelevant in the face of character. As such, Anderson’s crisp writing and dramatically muted aesthetic are the real star of the show here.

That says a lot about a film that features career best work from Hall, Reilly, and Paltrow. There are also scene-chewing contributions from Samuel L. Jackson and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. That’s just how strong a debut Hard Eight is. It’s high time the film got the sort of adoration the rest of Anderson’s venerated, uncompromisingly kaleidoscopic oeuvre has.

Hard Eight

Worth It?

You bet. In the almost 20 years since Paul Thomas Anderson unleashed Hard Eight on the world, he’s gone on to become one of the most revered filmmakers of this or any generation. With titles like Boogie NightsMagnolia, Punch-Drunk LoveThere Will Be BloodThe Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread to his credit, he’s more than earned that rep. Somehow Hard Eight feels all but forgotten in Anderson’s canon, even amongst his biggest fans. If you count yourself amongst those fans, then now’s the time to revisit Anderson’s flawed but ferocious debut. And if you’re not familiar with the man’s work, well, now’s the time to get acquainted. Either way, you should thank your lucky stars you can do that for a measly buck.

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