How fitting that the opening-night movie of this venerably risk-taking festival should be about gamblers. An aging tipster (Philip Baker Hall) meets a hungry young vagabond (John C. Reilly) in Reno and shows him the key to hustling a free hotel room for the night. Two years later, the pupil has made a few bucks and two new friends: a clamorous security guard (Samuel L. Jackson) and a whoring waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow), only one of whom the mentor likes. First-time writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has a good eye, and he's one to watch, too: His deliberately groggy pace perfectly captures the essence of people who've gotten too accustomed to free drinks while endlessly awaiting the next turn of the wheel. Hard Eight also dares to drain off the superficial excitement of gambling in a way that's true to life and rare for movies. But after a while, the lethargic style becomes a tic, the tic begins to grate, and then Anderson cashes in his chips for some violent noir conventions--which, for my money, is when Hard Eight loses its bet. Still, the four-way ensemble acting is stellar--and as the fest's opener, it's a worthy hors d'oeuvre. State Theatre, Friday at 8 p.m.