23 August 2005 | Quinoa1984
a first-time filmmaker very well on his way...
Paul Thomas Anderson's first film, Sydney (titled 'Hard Eight' by the distributors), has a story, but its more concerned about the characters, and how these actors play them. Like its inspiration, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur, understanding who these people are in this seedy, desperate environment, is the key. The script is intelligent, and contains a truth that isn't found in most "off-beat" crime films. In fact, the crimes in the film, while not without the importance to the story, is secondary to how these people are around one another, the courtesy, the un-said things, the mishaps, and the truths. In tune with Melville, the film is decidedly European- the story is quite leisurely, almost too much so, but in the characters Anderson has created and fleshed out he has people we can care about.
Philip Baker Hall, in a towering performance of professionalism (he's one of those great character actors who practically wears the years of his life on his face, not to sound pretentious about it), is the title character of Sydney. He offers Jimmy (John C. Reilly, believable in a role seemingly more like himself than his Reed Rothchild in Anderson's Boogie Nights) a cigarette and a cup of coffee, and then finds out through the conversation his mother's passed on. He offers up an intricate, but rewarding, way of making money in a casino without laying down a card (the slots, and a different scheme). Flash ahead two years later (awesome transition, by the way) where Jimmy is with Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow, a good performance). Things seem to be going alright all around, except that Jimmy has a violent (shown off-screen, of course) run-in, and needs Sydney's help. But there's another secret that has yet to be told.
All the little details of the story are accentuated by a directorial style that is usually peerless, and the tracking shots that have become paramount in Anderson's films (i.e. opening of Boogie Nights, walking through TV studio in Magnolia) are as smooth and interesting as anything from Scorsese. The Vegas Muzak is a touch that adds, like with Melville, a cool kind of touch not at all un-like film-noir. It's actually a thin line that Anderson is walking; how to make the Melville story's elements (an aging gambler past his prime, watching over the young people in their own messes, seeing the old turn to new) as one's own. I think he's achieved that in the film with a sense of sincerity with the characters dialog with each other. Perhaps Sydney has a different agenda than just being friendly. But Anderson wisely allows Hall to make the right choices with just certain facial expressions, what isn't said that counts. And the scenes with Samuel L. Jackson bring out the kind of intensity, sometimes quiet sometimes not, that hallmark his best performances. Maybe not a masterpiece, but it certainly isn't the work of an amateur, assured in his own script as a director, and in the strengths of his four key players.