I can finally say I’ve seen all of PTA’s films! And at an hour and 40 minutes, with a tightly focused story, this was an easy one to get though. It’s a character piece that trades big, empty moments for small, measured ones, and pays off for that trade.
Phillip Baker Hall is fantastic as Syd, s professional gambler with a questionable past. He happens upon John (John C Reily), passed out outside a small diner, and offers to share his wisdom and clean up John’s act. John accepts, and while it’s hard to understand Syd’s motivations (which makes perfect sense, since all good gamblers play the cards close to the vest), you’re drawn in by the acting and dialogue and, like John, you agree to go along for the ride. They have great chemistry, and by the time the film moves into its second half and the stakes are raised, you’re all in.
There is a lot in play here to dig into, even with a short run time by PTA’s standards (though to be fair, this was his first feature so he had yet to set that standard). The film touches on the kindness of strangers, hidden agendas, chivalry, decisiveness, and the virtue of calculation in a world of short fuses.
I won’t go into more detail because it’s unnecessary, but will mention thatwe are also treated to dynamite performances by Samuel L Jackson and Gwyneth altrow. Anderson shows flashes of some of the techniques that would come to define his style (such as drawn out dialogue and quick zooms on important moments), and most importantly, fully fleshes out his characters. Even when you don’t always understand them, Anderson does, and it’s very reassuring.