Anyone who has sat transfixed to the T.V. embroiled in hour upon hour of the World Series of Poker can attest to the pure animal drama of high stakes card play. First time director M.J. Loheed has taken the beauty of the game and transferred it to the screen with an intelligent, biting and concentrated study of a group of friends whose casual weekly game turns into an epic battle of wills when one member feels that his ego is on the line.
Considering his last name, Tom Sharpe must have seemed a lock to play the role of John, the instigator of the winner takes all freeze out. John has been taking issue lately with the treatment he has been receiving from his friends, so John has devised a way to win back a bit of that respect. Over the past several months, John has been honing his skills and identifying the other players tells so that he can teach them all a lesson in humility. Now John is ready to up the ante and raise the stakes from a quarter limit to a cutthroat game of winner takes all Poker. Will John prevail in his plan or will he only succeed in alienating the only true friends he has? – The big money is on the latter, but it’s the journey, not the reveal, that makes Freeze Out one of the truly great gambling films.
Freeze Out plays itself like a hybrid of Swingers and Rounders, and in fact, the film even regales the viewer with John’s anecdotial tale of sitting in with Ed Norton on a hand of Texas Hold-Em. What makes Freeze out better than Rounders is that the human element in writer/director Loheed’s debut never feel forced and the sub-plots at work during the game really help to flesh out the hopes, dreams and quirks of the players. The film never takes itself too seriously, yet still delivers all the drama of real match. What I found surprisingly interesting was that Loheed’s characters not only play straight Poker hands, they have invented some insane fusion games that are so complex that the film literally has to define them through side notes and clips. All of this exposition adds to the strong ambiance of the film and forces the audience into an understanding with the cast that adds an immeasurable interest in the outcome of the film.
Loheed has assembled a wonderful cast including Greg Behrendt (Mr. Show), Kris Logan (The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie), Eddie Pepitone (Old School), Laura Silverman, Paul Hopkins Jim Kohn and Julie Thaxer-Gourlay as Mary, the most naïve player in the group and the one who rallies most against John’s dangerous game. Each performance is both well rounded and complimentary giving the story an air of legitimacy that was the key failure of Rounders. Loheed knows how to use the camera to make the betting exciting, and a few times, the stark lighting across the smooth green felt evoked memories of Michael Ballhaus’ gorgeous cinematography for Martin Scorsese’s 1986 classic The Color of Money which is as high a praise as I can fathom for first time DP Karen Korn.
It would be easy to dismiss Loheed’s film a niche genre piece, but considering the exceptional performances, the witty comedy and the high technical marks, this film is hardly something that would only appeal to heavy-duty card players. In fact the scripting is so precise in it’s nature that even a Poker novice would feel comfortable with the double speak and jargon that are periodically phrased by this motley crew. But if you’re looking for a few pointers before sitting down to this game, I’m willing to bet that at this very moment Bravo is rerunning any one of the innumerable episodes of their ridiculous Celebrity Poker series, so tune into that and then get out to see Freeze Out, you won’t be sorry…that is unless this film re-aggravates you’re compulsive gambling addiction.