Molly’s Game is about highly intelligent, fast-talking people struggling to maintain their powerful positions in the high-pressure environment of the upper echelons of society. Incidentally, it’s written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. In Sorkin’s directorial debut, Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom in the true story of Bloom’s rise and fall in the world of exclusive high stakes poker. The film simultaneously recounts how Molly built the game and her empire as well as detailing her attempts to avoid prison time with the help of her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).
Aaron Sorkin projects are uniquely exhausting. Tremendous amounts of information are fired at you quickly, as if the character were speed-reading Wikipedia articles. Because his projects almost always involve over-achievers it sometimes feels as if a point is being made. This sometimes verges on self-parody as characters attempt Sorkins iconic walk and talk in a confined space and end up pacing around each other.
Sorkin started as a playwright, and although he has spent the last thirty years in film and television, he is still very much a playwright who drives his narrative with dialogue. Someway into Molly’s Game there is a quiet moment. The relentless narration and dialogue actually relent as Molly is alone in her lawyer’s office, quietly examining a set of law books. We are left to wonder what she is thinking and yet we understand her character well enough to infer how she feels regarding these pristine tomes. There are a few such understated cinematic moments in Molly’s Game, but far more often information and meaning are inferred by rapid-fire dialogue.
Whenever I watch a film with a great deal of narration I always wonder how it would be without it. Would I be able to follow the intricate plot or character motivations purely visually? I’m always a little frustrated that I’ve not been afforded the opportunity to find out. The film is, however, utterly compelling. The story of a high stakes poker game that gradually becomes more and more illegal in spite of Molly’s best efforts is thrilling and fascinating. Sorkin understands people’s obsession with the rich lifestyle and celebrities and is able to make a film that both satirises and indulges in these excesses.
Jessica Chastain delivers another powerful performance as a driven person who pursues a career to distract herself from personal issues. Bloom finds her ambitions frustrated by the jealous whims of men around her. It is, however, hard to claim the film as a feminist triumph when her dad shows up in the third act to sort out her main conflicts. However, Chastain is effortlessly charismatic. There is also very able support in the form of Idris Elba, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Costner and a very unusual turn from Michael Cera. All are afforded some excellent monologues that allow them to build to a dramatic crescendo of emotion.
Sorkin’s style may produce mixed results and this is hardly a bold departure for him or for Chastain who, since Zero Dark Thirty, seems to have carved a niche as the no nonsense business woman, but it is a very fine example of their talents. The film is compelling, energetic and often funny. For better and worse, it’s exactly as you’d expect it to be.
3.5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of the podcast One Good Thing.