For his first foray into feature directing, much-lauded playwright, screenwriter, and TV maven Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing, The Social Network) brings to the screen the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who found fortune and eventual infamy running high stakes covert poker games for the great and the not-so-good in Los Angeles and New York City before her downfall and subsequent book deal which led, inevitably, to the subject at hand.
We get a brief prologue, narrated by Chastain in Sorkin’s trademark rapid-patter dialogue, that outlines the young Bloom’s aspirations as an Olympic-hopeful skier before a career-ending injury and a fractious relationship with her philandering father (Kevin Costner, great) sends her fleeing the nest to Los Angeles. However, our real point of ingress comes years later when Bloom engages the services of lawyer Charlie Daffy (Idris Elba, bringing the gravitas) after a dawn raid by Federal agents presages prosecution for past misdeeds. As the case against Molly proceeds and Daffy tries to get the guarded Bloom to give up her secrets, we delve into her life and her fascinating career, following her journey from there to here.
It’s engrossing stuff. For one thing, there’s nothing so enticing as being allowed a glimpse into a hidden world of power and privilege, and Molly’s world is certainly that: organising secret poker games in five star hotel rooms for celebrities and multi-millionaires with all the luxury that entails, seeing hundreds of thousands won and lost on the turn of a card, watching massive egos crash against each other like tectonic plates in high risk tests of nerves and resources. Even the driest account would be endlessly entertaining, and this raw grist is honed to perfection by Sorkin’s nimble script, which heightens the drollness and drama with quickfire dialogue that also serves to reveal character and motivation with sly accuracy.
From a certain angle, the game of poker is all about controlling the flow of information – figuring out what your opponents are holding while concealing your own hand, and so too is Molly’s Game. Throughout the film there’s a tension between Daffy and Bloom; the former needs to know everything in order to do his best to keep Molly out of jail, while the latter keeps her secrets close, doling out information only when she has to, only to best effect and with her reputation for discretion always foremost in her mind. In Sorkin’s hands this becomes a powerful rhetorical tool, allowing him to lay out his narrative in a deft way that avoids the more obvious pitfalls of the biopic form.
Still, it would be to little effect if we didn’t have such an arresting (and arrested!) figure at the centre of it all. Chastain’s Molly Bloom is a complex figure: fiercely intelligent and ambitious, but driven to succeed in a manner that veers dangerously into self-destructive behaviour. She’s an enigmatic figure who keeps her own counsel – a trait that confounds Daffy, her real-life counsel – and so we’re forced to try and glean what we can about her motives and drives from what she reveals and what others in the course of the story uncover. Late in the game we get a fantastic two-hander scene where Costner’s character, a psychologist, lays out to Molly what he sees as the fundamentals of her psyche (it wouldn’t be a Sorkin joint without a middle-aged white male liberal telling us the way of the world) but such blunt tools only penetrate out heroine so far – she retains her selfhood, and her power, even in what appears to be defeat.
Gendered power is the other big throughline here: the appearance and performance of masculine power, as seen around the poker table and embodied by Michael Cera’s “Player X”, an amalgam of several celebrity players (but mostly Tobey Maguire) and the actual, by necessity more subtle, feminine power wielded by Molly and her all-woman team, who go out of their way to present as decorative waitresses and hostesses grateful for thousand dollar tips, but are in fact a shrewd and canny machine devoted to separating grandstanding men from their money. More obviously powerful and sinister forces come into play – the Mafia makes a play for a piece of Molly’s action in one harrowing sequence, and the Russian Mob make their presence known as well – but thematically speaking they’re very much in the background compared to the age-old gender struggle that informs every scene and interaction.
That makes Molly’s Game a much more timely biopic than usual, but it never overplays its hand in this regard – drama and character remain the focus. And yet it’s also frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Sorkin’s zingers zing as always, and there’s a brick joke about Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that absolutely slays when it finally lands. The film’s tonal control is impressive, pivoting from electrifying aspirational scene-setting to fraught drama to droll, world-weary dark comedy often within the same scene – a trick last week’s I, Tonya found harder than a triple axel. Ultimately, though, what lifts this film above the pack is that, like its subject, it knows what it’s about – even if it expects you to do some work figuring out exactly what that is.