We gave it a B
Gamblers live for the moment — for the next bet, the one that will take them over the top — and this gilt-edged noir contraption is an enjoyable wallow in life-is-a-craps-table existentialism. Our guide is Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a silver-haired, lone-wolf gambler who invites a drifter (John C. Reilly) to share a cup of coffee with him. He cleans the kid up, teaches him to play the tables in Reno, and slyly arranges his union with a beautiful young hooker (Gwyneth Paltrow). And what, exactly, does Sydney get out of this? Played with a riveting poker face by Philip Baker Hall (the Richard Nixon of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor), he hovers over the action like a pouchy-eyed Mephistopheles: all-seeing, all-controlling, all-mysterious. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson crafts a plot of manipulation and chance, in which some zigs and zags are more convincing than others. Still, his feel for scuzz, for people living at the raw extremes of appetite, is palpable. Hard Eight invites you to share in the gambler’s highs, but it also knows they’re illusory — even when you win, you’re alone.