By: Trevor Chartrand
With Molly’s Game, screenwriting veteran Aaron Sorkin ups his career ante, taking a new seat at the table for his directorial debut. Sorkin already has a massive advantage over most first-time directors, having worked closely with big players like David Fincher and Danny Boyle in the past. And to top it all off, his ace-in-the-hole is the fact that the first script he brings to the screen is one of his own. The Sorkin style, structure, and rapid-fire dialogue are all here, but when all the chips are down, does the film still cash out?
Based on a book of the same name, Molly’s Game is the true account of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the tabloid-designated ‘poker princess’ who ran multi-million dollar underground poker games in both LA and New York City for over three years. Groomed by her strict father (Kevin Costner) to be a successful Olympic skier, Bloom is forced to find a new path after an unfortunate accident crushes her athletic career goals. She is soon driven by entrepreneurial ambition to go in a new and much more dangerous direction, unknowingly laundering money for members of the Russian mafia in her high-stakes poker games.
The explosive opening sequence in Molly’s Game is almost hypnotising in its complex precision. It’s a faced-paced whirlwind of information that not only challenges viewers with the question ‘can you keep up?’, but also dares you to do so. As Molly prepares for her Olympic qualifying run, she rapidly narrates her entire life story until this moment, re-enacting each step that brought her to the top of this slope. In any other film, this five minute sequence would have been the entire first act. Here every detail is set up so specifically; from the way Bloom sees the world, to her relentless drive, to her home life, and to her relationship with her father, we learn everything about this character at a speed over 200 words per minute. Culminating with a shocking inciting incident, this sequence is an incredible hook that will immediately have audiences on board.
But with such a strong opening, does Molly’s Game go all-in too soon? Well, yes and no. The script dials the pace back following the intro, catching its breath before slipping into some very familiar territory. From here on, the narrative begins to follow a pattern we’ve seen from Sorkin a few times, as if there’s a niche he’s found and latched onto. In another Sorkin script, The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s story is told with flashbacks as he faces multiple depositions. Molly’s Game features the same non-linear timeline as Molly tells her story to her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), while he works on her case in the present. The dialogue is fast and witty, the characters are engaging, and overall the writing drives the film effectively, but it seems Sorkin’s found a comfort zone structurally that he’s stuck in. It would be nice to have seen such an effective writer take a risk and try something new instead.
Jessica Chastain is compelling as Molly Bloom, wearing the characters’ inner turmoil with considerable strength and weight. Though her struggle between corruption and morality wavers, she stays firm and she adheres to her values as much as possible. Even the people she does take advantage of – the entitled celebrities, athletes and stock brokers – manage to earn her sympathy and she tries to reconcile between her own empathy for them and wanting their business. It’s incredible to watch Chastain’s portrayal of Bloom with her harsh wit and attitude, brimming with repressed softness beneath the surface.
Idris Elba also delivers as Jaffey. The evolution of the character who initially looks down on her is compelling – the more he learns about her and her moral values, the more he develops a passion for defending her. And as his passion grows, so does his screen presence. As Molly’s father, Kevin Costner’s role is relatively low-key and straightforward, yet noteworthy as the justifiable source of Molly’s angst.
Visually, Molly’s Game has a deliberate fluidity and glamorous style, especially with high-class, high-stakes gambling sequences. Unfortunately though, the poker-playing scenes are mostly all shot in the same way, and the second act of the film loses momentum while people play cards. The only tension that could come from the game is the mystery, not knowing the cards, but the film doesn’t have time to dwell on the suspense of the moment since it has so much dialogue to fit into its running time.
Overall, Molly’s Game is a very safe bet this holiday season, and an impressive first foray into directing for Aaron Sorkin. Despite some slight pacing issues and a familiar structure, his gamble has certainly paid off. The film weaves timelines together expertly to shed light on a shocking true story, going even beyond the details of the book to include what’s happened since Molly Bloom’s story was first published.
Do You Tweet? Follow These Tweeple:
Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor