It’s been a few years now since the release of a prominent poker film, with MOLLY’S GAME in 2017 being the most recent example. As always seems to be the case though, the poker genre is about to resurface.
First, it sounds as if a Russell Crowe-helmed poker thriller is finally inching closer to completion. There have been vague rumors and whispers surrounding this project for a little while now, and the information we have now appears to be concrete. Crowe will direct and star in the movie, which is called POKER FACE and concerns a sort of poker night gone awry. Crowe’s character is a “tech billionaire” looking to get the better of some old friends in the process of hosting a game, which is ultimately interrupted by a home invasion. We don’t know if actual poker scenes will be particularly important to the plot, but if nothing else it sounds like a fun new angle on the genre (plus it’s always a treat to see Crowe work).
More significant still is the upcoming release of THE CARD COUNTER, a movie many critics and cinephiles have been eagerly anticipating. This project stars Oscar Isaac and is being billed as a redemption story about an ex-military interrogator who turns to gambling. It is being directed by Paul Schrader, with a helping hand from Martin Scorsese according to some accounts. By the sound of things this film will revolve a little more around poker and casino scenes — and could also be a contender for major awards.
We may not have seen them yet, but these two upcoming releases indicate that once again the poker genre is making a comeback. Through decades of changing casino culture, the transition to online gaming, and now a pandemic that all but turned casino resorts into ghost towns, poker films seem to be resilient without fail. So what is it that keeps studios interested, and keeps audiences coming back?
A few factors may explain it.
There are certain genres that appear timeless because of historical clout. Poker films are somewhat more niche than other examples. However, like westerns, spy films, and the like, there is a certain classic quality to poker films that calls back to past ages of cinema. That lingering quality makes the average poker movie seem almost inherently special.
Not everybody has experience with poker. But most can learn the basics. Regardless of which variety of the game is at hand, the fundamental rules of poker tend to amount to a few simple rules and a sequence in which betting occurs. That’s not to suggest filmgoers study these rules in advance of attending showings. Rather, it’s to point out that most reasonably well-constructed poker movies can convey the information in a natural manner. Poker is not merely depicted on screen. Often, it is taught in a way that welcomes audiences in, which is not always possible with super-specific subject matter.
Inherent Cinematic Quality
Think about some of the great poker movies: ROUNDERS, THE GAMBLER, CASINO ROYALE…. Each of them has an almost inexplicable magnetism, and it feels similarly across examples. This speaks to a rare, inherent cinematic quality in poker scenes. There’s just something naturally dramatic about the stakes on table, the surrounding venues, and the actors getting to do so much with so little action. In short, poker has excellent ingredients for good scenes.
Building on the previous point, poker films also make for excellent actor showcases. These scenes give actors a chance to showcase their talent without needing a ton of inventive dialogue. There are subtle expressions, eye movements, wordless communications, and so on — all challenging, but all the sorts of things that can show an actor’s true capability. Acting in a poker scene is an opportunity, which is likely why great actors seem continually drawn to the genre.
Box Office Expectations
In a recent box office update, we highlighted THE SUICIDE SQAUD’s $27.6M opening weekend as a disappointment. That’s essentially a factual characterization, and speaks to the extremely high bar that many popular films face today if they’re to be considered successful. To a large extent films with these expectations are beginning to eclipse smaller projects altogether. But poker appears to be an exception — a more niche genre built for lower budgets and lower expectations, but still fairly reliable to make decent money.
We’ll see if POKER FACE and THE CARD COUNTER ultimately continue the trend of poker films being at least moderately successful. But considering the factors just listed, it’s perhaps no wonder that this genre always seems to have legs. In all likelihood, we’ll be looking at another few interesting releases just a few more years from now.