The Distracted Critic Visits THE POKER CLUB (2008)
THE POKER CLUB (2008)
Movie Review by Paul McMahon—The Distracted Critic
A long time ago, I read Ed Gorman’s short story “Out There in the Darkness.” It’s a quick and gritty tale which hints at a lot more suspense and violence than is actually there. In 2000, Mr. Gorman released a novel-length version of the story, titled THE POKER CLUB. He changed little about the characters and situations and fulfilled all the promise of suspense and violence that the novella laid out. In fact, he stretched the tension in the book tight as a drumhead. The characters do a lot more, and thereby screw up a lot more as well. It’s a difficult trick to expand an older story without making it feel padded, but the novel is excellent and a testament to a great writer.
Why, then, does Tim McCann’s film of THE POKER CLUB (2008), fail to get off the ground? McCann previously directed DESOLATION ANGELS (1995) and NOWHERE MAN (2005), two films that look pretty serious. He treats things here seriously, as well. Maybe too seriously.
Ed Gorman’s novel opens with four friends playing poker, drinking, and passing around skin mags like exuberant ten-year-olds. Neal is late because he’s on neighborhood patrol. Seems their tight little community suffers a lot of break-ins. The friends gamble for a while, and are interrupted when a burglar breaks in. Aaron, who owns the house, cares for Curtis, who’s been attacked, while Neal and Bill catch the burglar and tie him up. Their adrenaline’s pumping, they’re feeling powerful, a little drunk, and are eager to interrogate their prisoner. When the burglar tries to escape, they accidentally kill him. The friends’ power-trip turns to panic. Frightened of losing everything they’ve achieved in their lives, they make the disastrous decision to dispose of the body in a local river. Once that dirty job is done, they go their separate ways, thinking their trouble is over.
Problem is, the burglar had a partner waiting outside. He saw what they did, he knows who they are, and he’s plotting his revenge.
In the novel, the poker club is made up of four basically good guys. They feel guilty over what they’ve done, but are so racked with the fear of losing everything they’ve worked to attain that they repeatedly talk themselves out of calling the cops. Instead, they try to hunt down the mystery burglar themselves, determined to take back their lives on their own. It doesn’t take long before people start turning up dead.
I understand that filmmakers want to change things up when adapting a book into a movie. It gives people who have read the book something different than they expect, with the hope that the surprise will make them like the movie more. In reality, this psychology almost never works. The changes that were made for THE POKER CLUB, for instance, don’t work at all.
Gone is the “Neighborhood Patrol” and the back story of burglaries. These aren’t guys intent on protecting their family and property; these are just overgrown adolescents being asses because it’s what they do. Not a single character on the screen is likeable. Even Aaron, the book’s moral compass, who always tried to coax his buddies into doing the right thing, is revealed to be cheating on his wife. Neal has a cocaine addiction, which he maintains on the salary of a college professor. Bill has gone from being a doctor who deals with terminally ill patients—thus grounding his bullying nature in an interesting context—to being a strip club owner who bullies, it seems, because he enjoys it and because nobody has ever been tough enough to stop him.
Very little is done with the mysterious burglar. Aaron gets phone calls in the middle of the night where the caller doesn’t say anything. In the novel, these events heighten the tension and build suspense because the threat is revealed through Aaron’s inner dialogue. Movies don’t have that tool, so we end up sitting through a lot of barely interesting one-sided conversations.
There are a couple of intense scenes in the book where the friends gather around Aaron’s kitchen table to discuss their situation and what they should do about it. These scenes are poignant and gripping—four guys clinging to their friendship while struggling to squeak through the ugliest, most destructive situation they’ve ever faced. In the movie, these discussions are held in Bill’s strip club and can barely be heard over the pounding music while the camera focuses on pole-dancing nudes. Without subtitles, you’ll have no idea what’s being discussed. These are four guys discussing a problem that could ruin their lives and land them in prison, yet director McCann seems to think we won’t pay attention unless there are topless dancers to watch. Does that speak to McCann’s lack of confidence in his material or his lack of confidence in the American moviegoer.
Michael Risley (SHATTERED, 2007), who plays Neal, and Loren Dean (ENEMY OF THE STATE, 1998), who plays Curtis, look alike and act with identical blandness, making their characters hard to tell apart. Johnny Messner (ANACONDA: THE HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID, 2004), who plays Bill, is a little more memorable, if only because his character is such a blatant ass, he’s hard to forget. Jonathon Schaech (QUARANTINE, 2008), who plays Aaron and co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Chizmar, never emotes during the film. It’s as if he’s still rehearsing and no one’s told him they’re shooting for real. So, not only are the characters unlikable, the actors portraying them do little to make them even seem alive.
It probably goes without saying that they’ve changed the ending of the story, as well. It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn they changed it to a ridiculous degree. McCann tries to surprise the viewer by veering off in a different direction, but his big surprise negates every single hint and foreshadow he’s put in place since the dead burglar’s tarp-shrouded body hit the water. He turns the movie into a shell game where no matter which cup you think the peanut is under, you lose. McCann has tossed it beneath the sofa.
Nothing that worked in the book has made it to the screen. It’s my opinion that the movie version of THE POKER CLUB should be avoided and forgotten. If you come across Ed Gorman’s novel, though, definitely give it a read. There’s a reason the man’s won the Spur Award, the Ellery Queen Award, the Shamus Award and so many others.
I give THE POKER CLUB a single star because the cinematography and sets were pretty good, and am giving it five timeouts. Technically, it was a lot more, but by the time the film wrapped, I was grasping at any excuse whatever to shut the thing off and walk away.
© Copyright 2012 by Paul McMahon