What Are the Ingredients For A Good Poker Film?
Poker cinema is fascinating, in that it is both hit-or-miss and constant. Some of the films we’ve seen in this genre over the years — Rounders, Casino Royale, Mississippi Grind, and Molly’s Game for instance — have been quite well done. These films are generally well reviewed and have strong, lasting appeal among audiences. On the other hand, several others have bombed with critics and viewers alike. All In and The Grand come to mind, and Runner Runner was so bad as to lead a blistering review blurb by Peter Travers to call it a “tight-assed Casino ripoff” that would leave audiences feeling “fleeced.”
Despite the up-and-down nature of the genre though, it’s remarkably constant. There are always new poker movies on the way, and it seems studios and audiences alike are always willing to give them a shot. This begs the question: What are people looking for? What is it that actually separates the good poker movies from the bad?
Sometimes the answers to questions like that are intangible. It’s not always perfectly clear what makes one film work and another not. In the case of the poker films we’ve seen over the years though, there are some ingredients that tend to be present in the successful ones.
Every poker movie has stakes. That is to say, the players are never playing just for fun, as so many people do in the real world. But in the poker films that really matter, there are stakes beyond the chips on the table. In Casino Royale we know that James Bond is looking to thwart a dangerous criminal financier. In Molly’s Game we’re watching the construction of a lucrative career that could fall apart at any moment. In Rounders and Mississippi Grind, main characters are largely confronting personal demons. The poker in these movies feels more important because of these added stakes. In lesser movies in the genre, the game tends to feel less important — either because additional stakes aren’t fleshed out, or because (as in Runner Runner) the game exists entirely separately from the main drama.
Another key ingredient that the best poker movies all possess is full immersion in the world at hand. This is something that was explored in some detail in a anniversary post for Rounders back in 2013. In that post, the writer posted that “the most vivid and most enjoyable movies immerse us in a world, and show us how that world works.” It’s a simple phrase, but a perfect one to describe the best poker films, and even the best poker scenes. In all of the good poker films we’ve mentioned in this piece, writers and directors have worked to bring audiences along for the ride — explaining gaming settings and cultures, conveying the aforementioned stakes, and so on. It’s a delicate process to pull this off without simply preaching to audiences, but when it’s done correctly it makes all the difference in any movie that deals with a specific culture or niche subject.
This idea relates to that of immersion, but has to do more with the actual game of poker. For the most part, it’s actually a simple game for beginners to pick up. However, there are complexities to it that some filmmakers seem to understand better than others. In subtle ways, films like Rounders and Molly’s Game, and even Casino Royale, dig into the extensive glossary of poker terms that seasoned players understand like a second language and explain the important ones to viewers. Similarly, they tend to do a good job of teaching how betting works throughout a game, so that players are fully aware of the drama going on at the table. Less interesting or effective poker films, meanwhile, either fail to provide these explanations entirely or do so in clumsy ways that actually take away from the immersion.
The Right Cast
We’d hesitate to say that a good cast makes the difference, because perfectly capable actors have failed in poker films. Ben Affleck can be perfectly compelling and effective, and has been many times — but in Runner Runner he simply doesn’t make an impact with limited material. By contrast, some of the best poker movies come across as excellent platforms for skilled actors to do some of their best work. It’s not always clear what leads to a strong performance, but it’s clear that the right cast can take a decent poker script to the next level.
Good Old-Fashioned Direction
It may sound obvious, but great direction is sometimes the simplest explanation as well! Or review a few years ago referred to Molly’s Game as an exceptional directorial debut by Aaron Sorkin, who up to that point had stuck solely to writing. Sorkin demonstrated a clear ability to work the cameras, stage the scenes, and set the pace all in ways that heightened the drama. By contrast, when you see a movie that seems promising and ends up seeming flat and uninspired, it’s usually at least partially due to direction — even if you can’t always articulate the specific issues. Above all else, the best poker films were simply made by directors who got them right.