Some moments in a great film might speak to you, some might move you and some will hit you so hard emotionally that you feel it physically. The final phone conversation between John and Sydney towards the end of Hard Eight falls in that latter category for me and it remains one of my favorite scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography. It’s a quiet and relatively static scene that shows how well Anderson knows when NOT to be showy. From Hard Eight to There Will be Blood, Anderson has never forgotten how powerful a moment can be when you have enough faith in your actors to just keep the camera on them and let them work their own particular brand of cinematic alchemy.
That final conversation between John C. Reilly and Phillip Baker Hall in Hard Eight just fills me with gratitude every time I watch it. Gratitude to P.T. Anderson for writing such a simply and yet poignant scene that manages to spiritually and emotionally give a sense of closure to two men who so badly need it, and gratitude to Reilly and Hall for being such mesmerizing and brilliant actors. It’s one of those moments in a film where you just sit back and marvel at just how effective a truly great pair of actors can be at communicating exactly what it is they are thinking, feeling and needing.
Anderson sets up the scene in the simplest way possible by keeping the camera on his two actors and just cutting back and forth as their conversation progresses. For a couple of minutes he allows his actors alone to relay the emotion of his piece, and he only cuts away from them once (to Paltrow’s Clementine waiting patiently in the car for John). The scene is one of the many great moments in Hard Eight, and there are tons of them, that truly signaled that Paul Thomas Anderson was going to be a force to be reckoned with as one of the most intelligent and graceful filmmakers of his generation. He would follow-up this scene with similar moments involving monumentally important phone-calls in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, and all those indelible moments owe something to this brief section of Hard Eight.
I’ve watched Hard Eight at least a dozen times in the near decade and a half since it was first released and the moment when Sydney tells John that he loves him like his own son still shakes me up. Also, no one will ever convince me that John C. Reilly is not one of the finest actors on the planet. Just watch his reaction after Sydney tells him this thing he has badly needed to hear for so long...it's so beautiful and so fucking devastating.