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‘Pioneer’ and ‘Poker Night’ Both Start With ‘P’ and Open This Friday, But Are They Thrillers Worth…

By  · Published on December 1st, 2014

‘Pioneer’ and ‘Poker Night’ Both Start With ‘P’ and Open This Friday, But Are They Thrillers Worth Seeing?

Magnolia Pictures

Two new thrillers hit VOD and iTunes this week, but while they couldn’t be more different in story they share two things beyond their first letter and inclusion under the same genre umbrella. They’re attractive visually and feature some solid performances. But is that enough to make either of them worth watching?

Pioneer is a ’70s -set Norwegian thriller about the decade’s oil boom in the North Sea and follows a deep-sea diver intent on investigating the supposedly accidental death of his brother. His quest for the truth reveals a possible conspiracy involving Norwegian & U.S. interests and the billions of dollars at stake. Poker Night is far smaller in scale and focuses on a rookie cop forced to use lessons learned at the poker table with senior detectives when he’s abducted by a psychopath with a grudge.


It’s the 1970’s, and the oil and gas boom is lighting up the globe when untapped depositories are discovered in the North Sea. The reserves appear enormous and guaranteed to lead to billions in profit, but reaching the ocean floor and laying the pipeline represent a fresh challenge for the interested countries. A corporate partnership between Norway and the United States sends down a team of divers consisting of local brothers Petter (Aksel Hennie) and Knut (André Eriksen) and an American named Mike (Wes Bentley). Something goes wrong leaving Knut dead and Petter to blame, but he suspects foul play of some sort and begins digging for the truth.

The period drama of the first act shifts into paranoid conspiracy thriller territory as Petter’s efforts lead him to an upward-pointing list of suspects. The issue of who to trust comes into play as members on both sides of the international collaboration begin looking shadier and shadier and someone starts pushing back from the darkness.

Director/co-writer Erik Skjoldbjærg (the original Insomnia) and cinematographer Jallo Faber deliver a sharp-looking film that captures the cold grays of the shoreline and tight confines of the underwater chambers they divers call home. That last area is the film at its best as the claustrophobia sets in for viewers, and the cast delivers the spectrum from ambition to fear to frustration as the danger and suspicion ramps up. Stephen Lang makes a brief appearance and, along with Bentley, make America proud with their dramatic turns, but it’s Hennie (Headhunters) who shines brightest here. He manages to express pain both physical and emotional and convinces in his dogged persistence.

Unfortunately though for as good as the cast and photography are the film is remarkably dull. There’s some tension in those claustrophobic scenes, but the majority of the film consists of Petter’s investigation, and while it clearly aims for Silkwood/Michael Clayton-style thrills and suspense it manages nothing of the sort. The various players and their interests blend together too much to give any real dramatic weight to any one face or motive, and the story never really gets big enough to make viewers feel there’s something real at stake. Even the individual scenes with Petter at risk of being caught fail to generate much in the way of suspense leaving us with a movie that simply plods along to its somewhat inevitable conclusion.

Pioneer opens in limited theatrical release, VOD and iTunes starting December 5th.

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Poker Night

Jeter (Beau Mirchoff) is a rookie cop who’s made a splash by lucking his way into a high profile arrest, and part of his reward is an invite to a regular poker game made up of the department’s top detectives. His more experienced brothers in blue use the opportunity to share stories from their career meant to teach him how to be a better cop, and the lessons couldn’t have come at a better time as Jeter is abducted by a psychopath shortly after leaving the game. His captivity finds him trapped along with a young woman in the madman’s basement, and he spends his time trying to escape while flashing back to the lessons learned at the card table.

There are some good ideas at play in writer/director Greg Francis’ feature debut, and first and foremost among them was to acquire a strong supporting cast to play the veteran detectives. Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, Titus Welliver and Ron Eldard lead the pack, and they’re fun to watch interact. The killer also wears a delightfully creepy mask for much of the film, and while it loses its power soon enough it’s quite effective early on when he first reveals his plan to “Have sex with little girls” and kill anyone who gets in the way of that goal.

But sweet jesus is this script a mess. It’s clear almost immediately that we’re in for a rough ride as not only do we start at the end before flashing back, but we’re also introduced to Jeter’s voice-over that will become a constant throughout the entire film. That’s a difficult element to pull off successfully, and nothing about it works here. Not only does it reveal our “hero’s” fate but it also lacks anything resembling urgency, sincerity or weight. We’re also told by the film itself and Perlman’s character that Jeter is a great cop, but every shred of visual evidence says otherwise. He’s a horrendous police officer who continually makes dumb decisions and is shown as a ridiculous klutz. The veterans don’t fare that much better as their lessons, told via flashbacks, reveal them to be somewhat mediocre at the job as well.

It gets worse. As a way to save money and seem cool those flashbacks start with the veterans telling the tale before shifting to put Jeter in their shoes. Basically he’s the one experiencing the events of their story which, in addition to adding nothing to the film, also means even less time with those four actors that some viewers have come to see. It’s all tied up in the idea that he’s learning from their wisdom, but a better choice would have been to incorporate some of that wisdom into the script. In lieu of smarts it jumps the story around, back and forth in time and occasionally into imagination – I did enjoy the killer’s flashback which puts him in a family and workplace complete with creepy mask – on its way towards twists both obvious and ludicrous. The end result is a film that cheats its way to an undeserved and unsatisfying ending.

Poker Night opens in limited theatrical release, VOD and iTunes starting December 5th.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.