The plot of “The Poker Club” contains such a relentless series of misjudgments, misfortunes and bonehead mistakes that it might have been titled “All the Wrong Moves.” One wonders why the four principals keep dealing themselves such calamitous hands; still, talented helmer Tim McCann (“Desolation Angels,” “Runaway”) manages to put the thrills in this thriller, adapted from Ed Gorman’s novel, despite a quartet of characters who would seem happy to go bungee jumping without the bungee. Cast names could draw wide fest and ancillary exposure, if likely limited theatrical.
“In less than 72 hours, my life as I knew it would be over,” Aaron (Johnathon Schaech) tells us in voiceover, as the cards are dealt and the chips change hands: He and his three college friends — Bill (Johnny Messner), Curtis (Loren Dean) and Neil (Michael Risley) — have been playing their weekly game for 15 years. In that time, Bill has gone from being a Detroit Tigers prospect to a strip-club owner with a bad knee; Aaron and Curtis have just opened a law firm together; and Neil has segued from biology teacher to biology teacher/cokehead.
When the card players surprise a knife-wielding intruder in Aaron’s house, Bill stabs him, Neil ties him up and then Curtis hits him with a baseball bat. As any loyal “Law & Order” viewer will tell you, they have violated every rule of evidentiary procedure and are looking at hard time unless they hide the body.
Schaech plays Aaron as the unprepared Everyman whose mettle is tested by a crisis and found wanting: He knows he should call the police, but fear makes him take extraordinary, and extraordinarily stupid, steps that create a web so tangled the four will never get out of it. Schaech also co-wrote the script with producer Richard Chizmar, and while they have produced a briskly told story, letting the characters take a breath as they dig their own graves would have made their downward spiral more plausible.
At the same time, the best thing about “The Poker Club” is its genuine mysteriousness: What seems like a conventional narrative at first grows increasingly perplexing, even as the cast of characters grows smaller. For a small town, the pic’s locale has an epic rate of homicide.
McCann’s stylish direction includes glimpses into Aaron’s nervous psyche that sometimes predict a gruesome future. Music by Evans Evans is aptly ominous; other tech credits are tops.