With Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Melora Waters, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson.
“I think if you need help paying for your mother’s funeral, we can work it out. I want you to see that my reasons for doing this are not selfish, only this: I’d hope you would do the same for me.” – Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film is an extremely small film that is a wonderful slow burn. It’s a film that isn’t like “Magnolia” or “Boogie Nights” at all; it’s more along the lines of “There Will Be Blood” (but not nearly as epic or perfect). Our man character is Sydney who is a very vague and ambiguous gambler who is out of Reno, Nevada. He meets a young drifter John (John C. Reilly) who is trying to find a way to pay for his mother’s funeral.
Sydney being a noble and generous man takes John to Reno with him, and teaches him how to gamble, how to work the system. John becomes Sydney’s protégé. From what we see of Sydney at the beginning of the film (and for that matter the rest of the film), Sydney is an honorable and noble man, but he does have his own personal reasons for taking John under his wing.
The film flash forwards two years and we find John has become a successful professional gambler who has become engaged to Clementine (Paltrow) who is the casino’s cocktail waitress and moonlights as a call girl. John begins to deviate from Sydney’s teachings and values and begins a relationship with Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who is a shady and manipulative person. Sydney sees right through Jimmy’s bullshit – but Jimmy knows something about Sydney – something that will turn everything upside down.
This is a very, very good film. It’s vintage PTA where he starts his trademark character study that makes “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” so wonderful. A PTA film is nothing less than a trip through the psyche of characters that are so interesting. Anderson is a remarkable storyteller who shows us everything yet tells us very little.
Anderson uses “Sydney” to set up his trilogy of beautiful sadness that is preceded by “Boogie Nights” and ends with “Magnolia”. When Jimmy confronts Sydney about his “past” he tells Sydney that he heard it from Jimmy Gator and Floyd Gondoli. Phillip Baker Hall played Gondolli in “Boogie Nights” and Jimmy Gator in “Magnolia”.
Anderson rounds out his small crew of character actors with a small scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays a cocky gambler with a mullet, and Melora Waters. Robert Rigbey shows up as a casino manager. PTA has always struck me as the perfect combination of Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. The way he is so loyal to his actors, how he always reuses them in his features (aside from “Punch Drunk Love” which I still think is an abysmal film aside from Hoffman’s part and then he takes a 180 and makes his masterpiece “There Will Be Blood” where he starts from scratch with a new crew of actors).
This is a very small and quiet film that has flown under most people’s radars. It’s not as great has his other films, but this is the film that started it all, this is the film where we first meet Paul Thomas Anderson who is one of the best filmmakers living or dead. He’s truly unique and amazing and pays so much attention to detail. His films are very Kubrickian.