Let me start by saying, I’m not one of these guys that knows Anderson’s cinema all that well. I haven’t even seen all his films. But I’ve always been intrigued by him, his knowledge of cinema, and the legion of die-hard fans he’s been able to rack up along the way.
While watching Hard Eight for the first time, I was struck by a few different things. First off, the way that Anderson’s managed to build a cinema family around himself. He’s used several actors numerous times, even been the one to establish them. John C Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman all show up here, and numerous other times in his subsequent films. He’s also already using here in his debut, cameraman Robert Elswit, who has since worked with him on all his features and Jon Brion who has scored all his work with the exception of There Will Be Blood.
I had always heard that Anderson really loved Scorsese and Altman. And while there are certainly hints of both (think Goodfellas and California Split), I see more of Tarantino’s influence here than anyone else. And of course this makes great sense given the context. We’re in 1996, two years after Pulp Fiction had exploded on the scene, and Tarantino had become a veritable cinema rock star.
Anderson chooses to cast Samuel L Jackson, who I think turns in one of his most memorable performances. He also chooses to start the movie in a diner, which is of course quite reminiscent of both Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. He also seems to share QT’s love for words (mannered but sharp and effective) and his mixture of humor and violence. See Jackson’s final scene to get a real feel for this.
Anderson might be post-modern. There’s undeniably a self-consciousness to some of his work, particularly his use of the steadicam and how he likes to have the camera push in on his actors in a way that’s somewhat unmotivated by the action. But he’s not as blatant with his pop-culture references as Tarantino nor the slew of other people in his generation that jumped at making a “crime film” after Pulp Fiction.
I would also offer that Anderson proves from the beginning to have a real skill and feel for actors. The performances are very strong across the board, and I would give special mention to Hall and Jackson.
My only real complaint about the film is the ending. I just felt a little let down by it. It didn’t pop or register for me in the same way as most of the rest of the film.
But as a first-time filmmaker myself, it’s striking to watch Hard Eight and Anderson’s confidence right out of the gate. This film doesn’t seem like a debut. It seems like someone who already has a complete understanding of film language and is using it however the hell he wants.