The Gambler’s Ruin

Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

“The law of gambler’s ruin states there is a chance of going broke merely by normal runs of bad luck, regardless of the longer-term expectations.”
Project Economics and Decision Analysis, M.A. Mian

“Probably the easiest way to understand the gambler’s ruin problem is to view it in terms of…the probability of ruin that the player is financially and psychologically willing to live with.”
The New Gambler’s Bible, Arthur S. Reber

John (John C. Reilly) never uses matches. “It’s just a rule with me,” he tells Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), the mysterious pragmatist currently driving the destitute John to Reno after meeting him outside a diner and promising—for reasons kept deliberately unclear—to help reverse the younger man’s fortunes. Not wanting to risk taking his hands off the wheel, Sydney has asked John to light his cigarette from a matchbook, but John simply can’t. “I had a really bad experience once and I promised I’d never use them again.”

In a brief cutaway serving as the first suggestion that Hard Eight,1 Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature, may have greater stylistic ambitions than to simply join the wave of chatty, violent American indies that littered the mid-1990s, we see John waiting in line for a movie when his pocket abruptly bursts into flames. “Something to do with spontaneous friction, I guess,” John says now of his matchbook’s combustion, still marveling that this casual moment could have erupted into shocking peril. Anyone carrying a matchbook must be aware that they harbor something dangerous, but the object has been designed to harness that danger, offering just enough flame to be productive, but—at least in theory—not enough to be destructive. You’re allowed to believe you’ve mastered this object, at least until some coincidental friction triggers a disaster.

The inflammatory item in Sydney’s own pocket, as we’ll learn much later—and as Sydney will go to murderous lengths to ensure John never finds out—is not an object but a secret: he killed John’s father. How long Sydney has been suppressing this fact is unclear, though it’s been long enough for him to walk out of his old life as an Atlantic City hardass and into a new life as a Reno card shark, and long enough for his old life to catch back up. After two years of mentoring John, assuaging his own guilt by offering the younger man a surrogate father—and himself a second crack at fatherhood, replacing his own estranged son with another adoring protégé he might mold in his image as a quietly confident operator—Sydney’s tenuous symbiosis is rocked by the dual intrusions of security consultant Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), who tempts John with an easier, sleazier way of moving through this world of smoke-fogged neon, and cocktail waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who tempts him with a melancholy affection that matches John’s own childlike sheepishness. As Sydney tries with mounting desperation to maintain control via all his tried and true patterns of pragmatism and poise, the jostling of these unstable elements erupts into violence and extortion, exposing the folly of Sydney’s belief that he might covertly absolve himself of sin.

“Y’know what motherfucker?” Anderson rhetorically tells his character on the DVD commentary track, “You’re gonna have to pay for something down the line, whether it’s in your own head before you go to sleep at night or whether it’s to somebody else.” 

This was the thought experiment that motivated Anderson’s first feature script: what might it look like if the hardass at the center of a classic noir didn’t end up pumped full of lead? What if James Cagney not only survived White Heat but lived long enough to look back on his crimes and their victims and wonder, “How do I repent?” And to embody that haunted killer, Anderson recruited the man he refers to on the commentary track as “the great American actor.”2

Anderson met Philip Baker Hall on the set of a TV movie for which the someday auteur was serving as a production assistant. After expressing his admiration for Hall’s work in Secret Honor—the 1984 Robert Altman experiment that saw Hall storm and rage alone on screen for 90 unbroken minutes as Richard Nixon, another man spiritually ruined by his desperate efforts to suppress his secrets—Anderson handed him the script for Cigarettes & Coffee, the short film in which Hall would soon star as a distinctly Sydney-esque operator fruitlessly attempting to dissuade an angry young man from committing an act of violence he’ll regret forever. “I was wondering,” Hall would later recall of reading the script written by this unassuming coffee runner, “who was the first actor in the 17th century to see a Shakespeare script, and did he know what he was reading? I certainly knew what I had in my hand.”

Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight (1996) | Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Anderson’s script—which he developed with the help of Reilly and Hall at the Sundance Directors Lab—was inspired by his own days lingering in the bland Nevada environs that Sydney silently stalks like a Wenders angel. These transactional spaces—be they massive casino floors or intimate hotel rooms—are designed to comfort and sedate, to help life’s details slip out of focus. Forget where you came from, they whisper. Forget what you’re running from and what you’re headed towards. All that matters is that you never get comfortable enough to be happy on anything beyond a surface level. You need to stay just unstable enough that you’ll keep throwing money at dealers and cashiers in exchange for another moment’s reprieve, focusing so hard on the symptom that you can forget the cause.

Sydney is the sort of man who believes he can master such banal yet taxing environments, the sort of man who treats games of chance as a matter of skill. Unlike a card counter, Sydney doesn’t play for the big score; as he teaches John, the better bet is to play just enough to put food in your stomach and a roof over your head. After declaring John’s ambitions—win enough money to pay for his mother’s burial—unfeasible, Sydney gives him a crash course in the “comp hustle:” endlessly turn cash into tokens and back again until the casino concludes that you must be a high roller and rewards you with a free meal and, if you’re lucky, a free bed to go with it. If you can fool people into offering things you haven’t earned, Sydney knows, you might secure at least enough time to catch your breath.

But the house, as the saying goes, always wins in the end. Casinos trade in loss, and believing you can outsmart those inevitable consequences is a delusion that can easily curdle into self-destruction. It’s this foolhardy urge that Sydney barrels into at a craps table—that game of pure chance, the one that no amount of skill can influence save for the skill of good judgment. But Sydney allows his judgment to be rocked by the vulgar young man at the far end of the table (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the boor who offers a few smirking obscenities and sends Sydney spiraling into the lap of a spiteful, reckless3 bet: $2,000 that both thrown dice will roll four—a hard eight. All it takes is that slight push and Sydney pushes back, risking and losing his hard-won capital in the process.

As he preens and brays at Sydney, there’s one term the young craps player keeps returning to: old-timer. It’s the same way Jimmy talks to him, sneering as he professes respectability for the classic generation. Their contempt crawls under the skin of this so-called old-fashioned man, and their swaggering solipsism—their flagrance, as John apologetically describes Jimmy—comes to serve as the inverted mirror revealing the rot at the core of Sydney’s attempted improvement.

An old-fashioned man, at least as exemplified by Sydney, believes in conservative grooming and attire, in treating women cordially, in taking care of your responsibilities—whether that means protecting those you’ve sworn to or cleaning up the messes you’ve left behind. Never mind that Sydney alienated his own family and attempted recompense through a campaign of insidious deceit. Old-fashioned men like Sydney believe it’s their right to set the parameters of social conduct independent of anyone who looks different than they do; father, to invoke the show that ruled the airwaves in Sydney’s heyday, knows best. And what John’s surrogate father knows is that to succeed in life, you should move with discretion, with your hand close to your vest, aware always of when to mind your own business. This is the model he provides for John, ensuring his own spiritual survival by passing his code to a new generation while simultaneously ensuring his physical survival by instilling respect in this man who might spell Sydney’s doom if he puts credulity aside long enough to question why his mentor chose him in the first place.

The plot of Hard Eight is predicated on Sydney’s desire to change his ways, to atone for the hurt he’s caused, but that kind of transformation isn’t as simple as turning away from painful memories. If Sydney truly intended to create meaningful change, he would have taken more significant measures than just exchanging one grimy gambling burg for another. Change requires a fundamental reassessment of one’s viewpoints and limitations, to open oneself up to what the world might have to teach rather than pushing back against the oncoming tides of time. Sydney is hobbled by his belief that he can treat the symptom of his regret without addressing the cause: that both his best and worst qualities originate from the same path he’s walked for decades, and that trying to keep one foot in the familiar can’t help but ensure the other foot is dragged back with time. If Sydney’s urge to repentance was true, he would find some way to explain himself to John and create catharsis for both, taking the matchbook out of his pocket once and for all. Instead, he lives by shortcuts and half-measures, impressing this lifestyle on the increasingly impulsive John just as much as his habits of grooming and conduct. Sydney may profess to love him, but he’s removed John’s agency to choose his own way to heal.

John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight (1996) | Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Among the many open questions left by Anderson, then, is how trapped any of these characters might be in their cycles of hurt. Does the universe of Hard Eight even allow for catharsis? And the best way to tease out the answer to at least this question may be in the way Anderson discusses his influences.

The film that tends to be cited most often in discussions of Hard Eight is House of Games, the 1987 con-man classic written and directed by David Mamet. There’s an undeniable Mamet patina to Anderson’s film4 with its smoke-fogged games of chance, its characters with shark smiles that distract from the hand behind their back, and the florid menace of the hyper-precise dialogue propelling the plot. But Mamet’s stories of confidence are often so brutal they tilt towards nihilism, and for all his virtuosic wordsmithing, Anderson has rarely made a film since that could be called spiritually indebted to Mamet. Thus, to unite Hard Eight with the remainder of the Anderson canon and suss out the power of its moral gravity, it’s more productive to consider the other artist whose influence he cites most consistently: Jonathan Demme.

“He’s my hero,” Anderson said in a 2018 conversation with Richard Linklater at the Austin Film Society. Watching Demme’s work in his youth, Anderson recalls, he found himself thinking, “If I could make my films, I want them to look like that, sound like that, everything.” Hard Eight wears its Demme influence on its sleeve; it’s evident in the the adoption of what’s by now known as the “Demme close-up”5 and it’s evident in the lengthy opening conversation between Sydney and John as the older man drives the younger one to Reno, an homage to the first scenes of Melvin and Howard.6 But in later years, as his idol became a peer and friend, Anderson would focus less on Demme’s stylistic quirks than on his underlying humanism. “Even Jonathan’s darkest movies are hopeful,” Anderson told David Fear in 2017 following Demme’s death. “I take inspiration from that.”

This sense of hope is present across Anderson’s filmography, even as the individual works often deal in the bleakest of themes while employing the most alienating of techniques. With the exception of the total annihilation that closes There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s endings are broadly happy, offering if not contentment then at least catharsis for their protagonists after struggles both external and internal. The world according to Paul Thomas Anderson is one guided by a moral compass in which punishment tends to come in proportion to a character’s crimes and forgiveness in proportion to their capacity for grace. Even in a film as overwhelmed with cruelty and cowardice as Magnolia, all but one character ends the long apocalyptic night on a path towards healing.

The sole character treated by Magnolia as unworthy of redemption is the one played by Philip Baker Hall. Jimmy Gator,7 unwilling to deal directly with the unimaginable trauma for which he’s held responsible, puts a pistol to his head. But rather than allowing him to pull the trigger, Anderson sends an airborne frog to collide with the gun and do it for him. A character as ethically bankrupt as Jimmy, Anderson seems to say, does not deserve even the shred of dignity represented by such a desperate decision. It’s this most outrageous of dei ex machina that cements the storytelling scales of justice in the Anderson oeuvre, and Jimmy’s bitter fate is one that Sydney escapes more narrowly than he could ever guess.

Sydney does not survive Anderson’s original screenplay. In this widely circulated shooting draft, Sydney’s past catches up in the form of the man beaten and held captive by John and Clementine before Sydney helps them flee to Niagara Falls. The man tracks Sydney down at the diner, shooting him three times before taking off after John and Clementine on a tip apparently given by Jimmy before his own demise. “Sydney holds his breath for another long moment,” the script’s directions instruct before dictating the closing image: “Sydney’s dead body in the middle of the parking lot.”

This intended ending may be an indirect case of retribution—Sydney’s primary crime against this man is failing to help him while aiding his assailants—but in using his relationship with John as a shortcut to redemption, he’s created an imitation hardass whose own victims can be traced directly to Sydney’s original sin. The justice Anderson intended to be enacted by John’s victim is poetic, but it’s cruel as well, moralism rooted in a didactic perspective on crime and punishment.

The completed film ends with Sydney’s survival, granting him the possibility of true redemption should he choose to pursue it. But the closing image—a spot of blood on his shirt cuff, which he attempts to hide with his jacket—suggests that violence and suppression have by now become a self-perpetuating cycle he’s helpless to break. This punishment may be internal, but it’s no less damning, leaving Sydney with a corrosive reminder that his efforts at repentance bring only more regret. And so with Sydney an unlikely candidate for hope, whatever Demme-esque light might be detectable in Hard Eight is best sought in the other surviving members of the film’s core quartet.

The vengeful pursuit of their victim is not the only bitterness Anderson intended for the close of John and Clementine’s story. The original script includes a final glimpse at the pair in which John assaults a bellhop for winking at Clementine, suggesting his road to ruin may be as inescapable as his mentor’s—rather than redeeming himself by assisting John, Sydney may have delivered a poison pill that’s by now taken hold. In the final product, Anderson leaves the pair on a note of aspiration: as they flee for the far side of the country, Clementine gazes out the window and tells John, “I won’t fuck up again, John. I really won’t. I promise you.” It’s impossible to know whether Clementine’s promise will be borne out, and it’s no easier to detect whether she quite believes it herself. What is detectable, with such power it radiates off the screen, is that she wants to believe it. For a story as doom-laden as Hard Eight, the mere desire to do good—and do it the right way—must be hope enough. 

While John makes no matching promise, the opportunity to escape the grasp of Jimmy, Sydney, and their warring modes of masculinity—brazen and craven; discrete and deceitful—provides his own avenue for hope: a chance to carve out his own mode, free of poisonous examples, as he sets out on his new life as a married man. Addled and panicked as the decisions may have been that led him to this place of serenity, it seems the most at peace we’ve seen John since we met him. As Aimee Mann sings over the closing credits, now is the time to “look at your behavior” and “the plans you’re making”—to consider the past while pondering the future and measuring the distance between what’s been and what might be. Sydney may have found himself at the start of another hopeless cycle, but John has found himself on an uncharted trajectory. The happiest ending to his story may be this non-ending: the gift of conclusions not yet foregone.

Hard Eight (1996) | Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

“In all of Anderson’s movies, people try to reinvent themselves in new identities,” John H. Richardson wrote in Esquire in 2008.8 What sets this director apart from others who pursue the theme, Richardson concludes, is the “tenderness to the way he treats his scammers and schemers and lonely midnight dreamers.” Pointedly composed without Anderson’s participation, Richardson’s profile centers on the thesis that the director’s fondness for characters who guard their pasts is rooted in his own reluctance to discuss his history. In the ensuing years, Anderson has maintained his detachment from public life, proving an affable and engaging interview subject during promotional tours while in between, as Steven Hyden wrote for Grantland in 2012, living “as Dylan and Lennon lived in the ’70s, turning out the occasional masterwork but mostly just hiding out.”

Though he may remain cagey about his personal life, Anderson is remarkably open about his craft, happy to discuss his intentions where many of his peers prefer to deflect in the interest of maintaining freedom of viewer interpretation. And, in the DVD commentary for Hard Eight, this is exactly what he does for a moment that seems onscreen to be designed for maximum symbolic leeway: the matchbook combustion. The miniature fire, Anderson explains, is about creating and managing viewer expectations. If most filmmakers want to hook their audience with a show of pyrotechnics, Anderson wants his version to be “punk rock and weird.” In the place of the explosion that might kick off a conventional thriller, he chose to provide “a puff of pant-fire.”

Sydney, it would seem, has learned from John by the film’s conclusion: before his focus turns to the blood on his cuff, we can see that he now carries a lighter in place of his matchbook. No longer will he take his accepted safety systems for granted, and though he’ll continue carrying a combustible object, he’ll at least ensure it’s one that can’t be jostled into disaster.

The lesson John learned from the matchbook incident is somewhat more philosophical. As the coda to his recitation of the story in the Demme-inspired opening, John mentions that he considered suing the matchbook company before his cooler head prevailed: “Things happen,” he offers as the moral to the entire inflammatory near-tragedy. “This happens, that happens. Shit just happens, y’know? You just deal with it.”

If anything might suggest a glimmer of hope for John, it’s this simple lesson: our painful pasts are not to be ruminated on, not to be harbored and nursed into grudges and retaliation. Some things just happen. Healing may take time and effort, but in the end, if you just deal with it, you may yet have a shot at escaping ruin with your shirt cuff clean.

  1. Anderson’s preferred title for the film was Sydney, one of many choices with which distributor Rysher Entertainment disagreed. Disturbed by Anderson’s esoteric footage, Rysher took over the editing room and assembled their vision of a commercially viable cut, one that repulsed Anderson and led to a campaign of harassment by the young director until his distributor permitted him to create his own cut on his own dime. Once his version was accepted by Cannes, Rysher relented on all but one point: the title, which they believed would conjure images of Australia. Anderson feared their title would conjure images of pornography, but nevertheless accepted the change—though he’s groused about it ever since.
  2. The fact that Hall played a similar character by the name of Sidney in 1988’s Midnight Run has led to speculation that Anderson meant to wink at Martin Brest’s classic caper. Anderson called his shot as early as high school when he handed a teacher a piece of paper with “Sydney” written on it, announcing that this would be the title of his first film. Whether these two facts triangulate into a remarkable case of manifesting one’s dreams or an amusing case of kismet is a matter on which Anderson has largely played coy.
  3. Given the 36 possible combinations of a pair of dice, the odds of rolling a hard eight are about 2.7%. Those odds remain the same no matter how many times the dice are thrown, and believing that past outcomes might influence future results—that a run of bad luck is bound to balance itself with a run of good—is a psychological folly known as “the gambler’s fallacy.” As we learn from Jimmy early in the film, this “big balls bet” is one Sydney has a habit of making, but not one he has a habit of winning.
  4. My mission,” Anderson said of his earliest writing projects in a 1998 Creative Screenwriting interview, “was to rip off David Mamet…House of Games, for instance, is one of the best scripts ever written.”
  5. Anderson makes use of the technique—in which a character centered in the frame directly addresses the camera in place of their conversation partner—in both Sydney’s first encounter with John over diner coffee and cigarettes and his ultimate secret-shattering confrontation with Jimmy. “You want the audience to be in the character’s shoes,” Demme told Anderson in a discussion at the 2015 Austin Film Festival, “operating on the premise that the more deeply into the character’s shoes the audience is the more they’re gonna care what’s going on.”
  6. “Get two people talking,” Anderson says on the commentary track of the lesson he learned from Melvin and Howard’s opening, “and if it’s engaging enough and wonderful enough, it’ll free up the rest of the movie for an hour and a half to go off on any tangent you might want to go off on.”
  7. Jimmy, we learn through dialogue towards the end of Hard Eight, is a former associate of Sydney’s, along with Floyd Gondolli, Hall’s porn magnate Boogie Nights character.
  8. As supporting examples, Richardson cites John’s imitation of Sydney alongside dishwasher Eddie’s transformation into porn star Dirk and the escape plan represented by Barry Egan’s amassing of pudding coupons. The profile was published following There Will Be Blood, very much the story of a self-made protagonist, and the schema could conceivably extend to subsequent Anderson characters, from Freddie Quell’s stint as a cult member to Alma’s willingness to walk away from her familiar life and fully align herself with the House of Woodcock.