As an avid Texas Hold’em player, I’ve honed my ability to read statuesque poker faces concealing the slightest tell (a subconscious sign revealing your rival’s hand). Sure, developing such a sleuthy skill has helped build a nice bankroll for my casino trips, but I’ve also carried this talent over into my film criticism as well. Just because a movie isn’t human doesn’t mean there aren’t tells scattered about the script and screen, as filmmakers unintentionally show their hand long before the cards are flipped. Foreshadowing, heavy-handed-dialogue, condemning red herrings – it’s not that hard to spot a tell.
Squaring off against Greg Francis’ Poker Night, I didn’t expect to face an opponent with Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu’s swagger. Establishing itself as a criminal thriller, we meet a police officer named Jeter (Beau Mirchoff) the night he’s abducted by a masked maniac (Michael Eklund) after a poker game with some local law enforcement big-shots. Calabrese (Ron Perlman), Bernard (Giancarlo Esposito), Davis (Corey Large), Maxwell (Titus Welliver), and Cunningham (Ron Eldard) invite the rookie to their game as an initiation of sorts, bestowing wisdom in the form of stories spanning their collective careers – experiences Jeter must draw upon after finding himself locked in a dingy basement. Reliving each anecdote, Jeter must learn from their messages if he ever dreams of sharing his own story with the next wide-eyed rookie.
Rounders fans are going to be disappointed to find no emphasis on the game of poker here, as gambling takes a backseat to Jeter’s perilous predicament, but horror fans are going to be digging Poker Night‘s genre-friendly saturation. Francis’ film carries itself like a tonally upbeat combination of The Collection meets a good-old-boys mentorship story, both sinisterly dark and sufficiently hard-boiled, as Eklund elevates his performance far beyond your typical psychotic murderer into lands that build a harrowing urban legend.
Poker Night abandons gritty detective work akin to Zodiac for a more cartoonish average-Joe-turned-child-molester (don’t worry, that’s only mentioned during background material), and while moments obviously abandon realistic protocol, Francis makes a better movie for it. Eklund plays a no-bullshit monster, suspense is constantly sustained, and Francis manages a few convincing bluffs that keep audiences guessing with each shift in momentum.
The poker game itself remains integral to the story through Francis’ structuring, opting to play out Jeter’s escape attempt while simultaneously revealing each cop’s story. Instead of unfolding in real-time, we hear Perlman and company dish their wisdom while Jeter recalls each experience, sometimes creating a trippy mashup where the poker game materializes in front of the bloodied, beaten hero.
Each “player” has their own style and personality, and the chemistry amongst the men makes for seamless banter and a grizzled camaraderie forged out of mutual respect. Eldard makes his presence known through loud-mouth insults, Large follows suit, Esposito remains classically witty, Welliver goes the silent badass route, and Perlman – well, he pretty much plays the Ron Perlman archetype we’ve come to know and love. While Mirchoff’s performance is delivered with ample intensity and gusto, it’s his wise elders who continually steal scenes through their twisted storytelling.
I’ve already alluded to Eklund’s memorable turn as the masked deviant torturing Jeter, but his performance deserves spotlight treatment throughout Poker Night‘s entirety. One minute you’ll be chucking at a clownish boogeyman, spanning jovial flashbacks that recall Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon, while the next you’ll be torn from the inside by Eklund’s cold, heartless stare. His villain is a true demon, powered only by sadistic urges and bloodlust, yet each revolting action only makes Eklund more entrancing. It’s like looking the Devil in the eyes while embracing an inevitable vulnerability that overtakes us in a paralyzing, unnerving manner. Eklund is a Joker – a wildcard gone rogue – who immerses himself in the mask, the chaos, and the euphoric highs of moral depravity. Without such an enigmatic foe, Poker Night never would have achieved its striking balance of depraved horror and procedural enforcement.
Greg Francis certainly shows a strong hand with Poker Night, providing a fresh alternative to cop thrillers and horror slashers by smashing the two together in a Frankensteined effort. While Perlman entertains and Mirchoff guides, it’s Eklund who walks away from the table boasting the biggest stack thanks to an immersive turn of villainy that makes Manson look like a candy striper. There are some potholes along the way, like an obvious genre repetition that keeps characters alive after escaping death for the billionth time, but there’s enough energetic fun to make Houdini-like illusions seem acceptable in Francis’ world. Poker Night is a cool, calm, and confident thriller with a few aces up its sleeve that’ll keep you guessing, achieving a wild freshness that typical horror thrillers might skimp on – a case of ambition yielding surprising rewards.
Poker Night is a "wild card" watch, but Greg Francis flashes a winning hand by making a memorable monster out of Michael Eklund.