Hard Eight

Hard Eight ★★★★



After Secret Honor Hall was necessarily less enormous in every part. It was both his prize showcase and his proper debut. To repeat the performance, to even attempt something that big would have diminished his Nixon. There was also an unspoken respect for the idea of it having originated on stage. Hence his desire to capture the feeling of seeing him do it live. Hall talked about how he knew the show would be going well the whole audience would breathe with him. Hall's appearance, I can't help but feel, helped his intensity. He looked like he'd been through hell. In Magnolia Anderson capitalizes on this, by once again putting himself in front a "live" audience as he starts breaking down. But the genius of Hall was the stakes could be low, small-timers in a motel room about to lose the nothing they have, and you still wound up breathing in unison with Hall.

Anderson writes Sidney as too saintly for his own good; you have a hard time believing in a hustler with no dark side, but you want to believe him because Hall makes him so real. The demand that a waitress not treat him like the other jagoffs who populate her section is a nice touch. This is what "nice guys" do. What's missing is the part where Hall's fragility reveals a dark side. The murder doesn't count, that's a Czechovian device more than a character reveal. Plus it happens off screen, so it might as well be a fairy tale. No, what's in front of us matters in Anderson's films, the off-screen haunts his characters but can't be trusted and the reasonable doubt helps keep everything even more ambiguous (the aunt memories in The Master are the best example of this, but it's in all of his work - indeed the thing that made Anderson a great artist was gaining the confidence to stop showing us absolutely everything). Which explains why when he shifted in 2002 he stopped hiring Hall. Hall is not an ambiguous performer. Everything he did and said weighed a ton. You could not look at him and not know everything. You could see what he was withholding, see what caused him pain, saw whether he'd had too much to drink, too little to eat, that he was happy, that he was alone. He was the bridge between the era of the booze lined leading men like William Holden and Humphrey Bogart and the 90s when character actors filled up all our movies like a baseball team around the leads. JT Walsh, Dwight Yoakam, Brent Briscoe, John Spencer, Robert Partrick, Ned Beatty, Rex Linn, M.C. Gainey, Powers Boothe, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang, John Carroll Lynch, Donal Logue, Zach Grenier, and like their short statured king, off to the side, Philip Baker Hall, always able to break your heart.

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