Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 10, 2015)
With a title like Poker Night, one might expect the 2014 film to provide a raunchy comedy along the lines of The Hangover. One would expect incorrectly, however, as Poker Night instead brings us a dark thriller.
Newly-minted police detective Stan Jeter (Beau Mirchoff) goes to check out a domestic disturbance and winds up in a complicated situation. As he tries to help a distraught, disheveled young woman named Amy (Halston Sage), a mysterious masked sadist (Michael Eklund) tazes Jeter, ties him to a chair and imprisons him for an extended period.
As he remains a captive, Jeter flashes back to his poker nights with colleagues. He uses the lessons he learned from these veteran officers to figure out how to escape from his current predicament.
If nothing else, this creates an unusual, non-linear framework for Poker Night. The question becomes whether or not these storytelling choices offer a useful technique or if they act as little more than cheap filler.
It seems to be a combination of the two. On one hand, the flashbacks offer some intriguing mini-stories, and they allow the cast to expand to a talented core. As the cops found in Jeter’s memories, we find good actors such as Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, Titus Welliver and Ron Eldard. They add depth to the production, and their scenes can be strong.
On the other hand, these flashbacks threaten to feel like a crutch. I occasionally get the feeling that writer/director Greg Francis can’t come up with enough of the standard thriller narrative so he throws in these short vignettes to pad out the running time. While they can be interesting, they don’t create the most natural, logical progession.
Poker Night also really wears its influences on its sleeve. Much of the time it feels like a mix of Saw, Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers and Se7en - especially Se7en.
Hoo boy, does Poker Night give off a Fincher vibe. This permeates much of the story/character choices and seeps down to cinematography, visual design and score. More often than I’d like, Poker Night feels like a semi-sequel to Se7en, but not one with more than a fraction of the Fincher film’s impact.
Despite the disjointed narrative and derivative feel, Poker Night manages to keep our attention. Sure, its hyperactive, unsettled nature can annoy, but at least it never becomes boring. I just wish Poker Night tried harder to be its own coherent film and less a collection of snippets that feel borrowed from other movies.