Review: ‘Poker Face’ adds another string to the bow of Rian Johnson

Image via Hulu
Image via Hulu

Infused with the essence of Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, Peacock original Poker Face may prove to be another home run for prolific writer and director Rian Johnson.

Coming on like Columbo with better hair and hygiene, Natasha Lyonne (Russan Doll) plays reformed card shark Charlie Cale. An essential piece of this anthology hybrid, which effortlessly combines quirky character studies with murder mystery segues, as our anti-hero finds herself pursued across America.  

Liberally lifting from the disheveled detective show, Poker Face sets up the circumstances and earmarks those responsible early on, before revealing how Charlie features in flashback. This not only makes audiences complicit, but gives each guest star ample time to make their mark. A fact which allows Adrien Brody (Chapelwaite) an opportunity to flesh out casino owner Sterling Frost Jr, with enough flaws and foibles to make his failures all the more tangible in a glorious first episode. 

With a concise and considered backstory connecting Sterling and Charlie, Johnson revels in revealing how all the puzzle pieces come together. Dascha Polanco (Samaritan) plays Charlie’s best friend Natalie, who starts the ball rolling by stumbling on something which could jeopardize the Frost casino, which Sterling manages for his overbearing father. 

Roped into a rigged game for high rollers by Frost Jr, Charlie’s innate ability to tell when someone is lying gets alerted following Natalie’s disappearance. What follows amongst the mayhem of dead bodies and high-rise suicides, amounts to an opener which finds Ms. Cale speeding away from the scene as police cruisers make haste to investigate. 

What follows is a run of episodes shaped around everything rest stop she makes, where foul play is afoot and an assortment of colorful characters make good with murderous intent. Besides the polished structure and solid story choices, Johnson clearly has a love of detective shows which goes beyond his celebrated Knives Out films. With not-so-subtle hints at homage through the inclusion of Pulp Fiction footage he also hints at structural inspiration, even if the visual aesthetic of Poker Face might drift towards dated.  

In terms of Charlie, this goes beyond the disorganized persona which Lyonne has implemented numerous times before, as this character genuinely seems to evolve. That distinctive voice, mane of hair and inquisitive expression which verges towards confusion, really fits Poker Face like a glove. In fact, it only takes three episodes before the formula itself feels established and by extension the show, meaning that this series could quite easily run up multiple seasons. 

Much of that comes down to the performance of Lyonne, which is deceptively disarming from the off. By channeling a persona she perfected in Russian Doll, Charlie slowly morphs into a contemporary detective, only ever moments away from being caught. With the shadow of Frost Sr. haunting her every move, Poker Face also maintains an internal momentum which keeps this show ticking over. 

As a linchpin for everything which follows, Brody puts in another polished performance as Sterling Frost Jr, which yet again demonstrates the innate versatility of this Oscar-winning actor. Both as a confidant to Charlie in that opening episode, as well as an affluent turncoat shortly before the end, Poker Face owes much to his presence in this pivotal role.  

Elsewhere, Hong Chau makes a memorable impression as long-distance truck driver Marg, who patches up Charlie following a firearms encounter, before hightailing it out of town following the discovery of a dead body. Down the road a piece, Lil Rel Howery imbues BBQ businessman Taffy Boyle with a silver-tongued turn of phrase, as he fights to prevent his brother from derailing everything he holds dear.

Sporting Armani spectacles and the silky tones of a small-town disc jockey, this pint-sized entrepreneur comes unstuck when Charlie rolls into town. Looking to make amends for the behavior of her unwanted dog, Cale decides to stick around and help out. Not only shaping this character into an “everywoman” in the eyes of audiences, but imbuing her with hints of humanity which add depth beneath the cocksure facade. 

All of these elements add up to a show which once again confirms the storytelling prowess of creator Johnson, who yet again delivers something unique in this Peacock original, which showcases Lyonne and finally gives her a character which hits all the right notes.  

Fantastic

'Poker Face' proves to be another home run for Rian Johnson, aided and abetted by a savvy central performance from Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale.