In the superb 2006 James Bond reboot Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s still-wet-behind-the-ears 007 faces off against terrorist financier Le Chiffre in Texas Hold ’Em. Fifty-three years earlier, in Ian Fleming’s franchise-launching novel, it was baccarat. While updating the tale for the 21st century, the screenwriters also changed the game to one a larger audience could conceivably follow while they waited for Bond to kill two would-be assassins in a stairwell, or restart his own poisoned heart with his cell phone. (Message and data rates may apply.)
At least the convoluted, poison-hearted thriller Poker Night never asks viewers to keep track of anybody’s cards. Greg Francis’ writing and directing feature debut plays like a thoroughly mundane mashup of grim David Ayer cop movies like Training Day, neo-noirs like The Usual Suspects, and green-tinted, subterranean torture flicks like Saw for long enough that when Francis turns out to have an ace up his sleeve, it’s a genuine surprise. Not enough to put the movie into the black, but enough to mark him as a talent to watch.
Francis’ prior credits are all in true crime or reality television—most intriguingly, something called Wives With Knives. (Let’s hope there’s a title song.) That’s probably why Poker Night has so much voiceover narration that it sometimes feels like a feature-length trailer for at least three different movies. The majority of it runs at the speed of the last five minutes of a Christopher Nolan film, when entire story beats are compressed into a shot or a line.
Set in Warsaw, Indiana, but shot (like so many films that aspire to Warsaw’s gritty milieu) in Canada, Poker Night is expository enough to work as a radio play—or as well as it works onscreen, anyhow. Its premise is that a masked serial rapist drugs rookie police detective Jeter (Beau Mirchoff), abducts him, and chains him up in a basement. To free himself, he travels deep into his memories of yes, poker night, a traditional gathering wherein Warsaw’s Finest—mostly graybeard detectives imported after earning their pensions in tougher towns like New York and Chicago—swap war stories for the rookie’s edification. They reiterate the point that poker night is only intended for educational purposes often enough to raise the question of whether they only play poker when a new detective joins their ranks. (That probably doesn’t happen often in Warsaw, Indiana.) Maybe they tell stories because they’re all terrible at poker. As titles go, Poker Night is no The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, but Sharing Night wouldn’t be empirically worse.
These digressions reflect Francis’ discursive style of yarn-spinning. He frequently flashes back from Jeter’s present-day escape attempts, and gets into scenes at the poker game. But the game itself contains at least four flashbacks, as each old-timer at the table tells the story of his career-making bust: It’s sort of The Grand Budapest Connection. Wes Anderson’s 2014 movie used a similar nesting-doll structure, but with far greater symmetry and elegance. The gimmick makes more sense in a film that’s actually about storytelling, memory, and loss than in what’s trying to be a pulse-quickening thriller. Francis recasts Mirchoff in these flashbacks as an older cop telling the story, even dressing him in a regrettable but period-appropriate turtleneck-and-sport-jacket combo for a flashback to 1979.
That cleverness comes at a cost, because the old cops are played by Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, Titus Welliver, and Ron Eldard—guys whose faces are more expressive than the overly familiar material Francis gives them. They’re certainly more interesting to look at than the blandly handsome Mirchoff, who isn’t a terrible actor, but who seems to have been cast to attract a demographic that would sooner read Crime And Punishment in the original Russian than sit through Poker Night. Pink-faced and unburdened by thought, he looks like he wandered in from the set of the Twilight sequel next door, which does provide a perverse thrill when the generic, masked psychopath villain Krazy-Glues him to a basement wall. Nobody’s seen that before in a movie, probably. 007 had to grimace and quip when Le Chiffre whipped his scrotum with a length of rope while complimenting him on his toned physique in Casino Royale. But he never had to contend with an enemy that Bonds in seconds.
Note: Poker Night is availble on VOD now, and will expand to theaters on December 20.