The unbelievably true story of Molly Bloom’s life finds itself matched by a filmmaker whose style leans on the hyperreal and a lead whose screen presence alone will bring the house down.
There’s a fierce perspicacity running through much of Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game. If you’re familiar with Sorkin’s particular sense of style, then this shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise. Sorkin carved out his place in the industry with his distinct grasp on wordplay, an infectiously energetic volleying of dense dialogue that never fails to captivate audiences, even when it veers a little too much into preachy territory. While his notable works — such as the television event that was The Westwing and his recent run of film scripts like The Social Network and Steve Jobs — have all been received well by audiences and critics alike, it’s difficult to not view them now as warm-ups of a sort. The main event, it seems, is Sorkin fully realising his auteur vision in the unbelievably real tale of Molly Bloom.
I say unbelievable because the true events the film is based on feel like they were tailor-made to fit the stylings of Sorkin, and it’s not hard to see why he chose to make this story his first endeavour into directing. Our introduction to the titular Molly (Jessica Chastain) is informative, funny, and unnervingly brutal; the perfect microcosm for the film to follow. Atop a steep vertical hill in the dead of winter, Molly is awaiting her turn to qualify for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Chastain, in sardonic fashion, narrates the nuances of competitive sporting and Olympic level skiing, complete with handy diagrams and quick cuts to liven up the exposition. During her descent down the hill, her boot is clipped by a frozen stick and she crashes head first into the crowd in spectacular fashion. Chastain quips ‘fuck you’; title card smashes onto the screen.
The fallout from her Olympic level failure ripples throughout her early 20’s as we spend the next 140 minutes shifting between several layers and timelines of Molly Bloom’s life. Her strained relationship with her father (Kevin Costner), her first introduction into the high stakes world of quasi-illegal poker games in LA, her deep dive into even higher stakes games in New York and her eventual arrest and trial, defended by a less-than-impressed attorney (Idris Elba). It’s a lot, and while it comes as no surprise that Sorkin’s skills as a writer allow each of these narratives to bloom, it’s noteworthy that for a first-time director he is able to masterfully weave in and out of story beats without the film ever becoming bogged down. His rapid-fire wit isn’t just present in the dialogue, the pacing and placement of each scene allow for a slow-building, emotionally rich tension that makes the runtime slip by unnoticed and the climax of the piece feel earned.
The entire film hums along with the unmistakable energy of a perfectly chosen cast. Chastain, whose filmography contains barely a blemish, is a powerhouse, embodying a new variant of the strong female lead type. Lobbing grenades of intellectual dialogue left and right helps of course, as does her weaponised womanhood, but Chastain’s gravitas reaches beyond the script and costume design, her sheer screen presences alone lends credibility to any given moment. Her performance here is relentlessly authentic: Bloom’s achievements are dizzying, her failures and injustices crushing, and the inevitable legal and personal reckonings will have you on baited breath. This is in part due to the, again, wildly cinematic nature of the real Molly Bloom story but the manner in which Chastain and Sorkin bring her to life on screen is exceptional.
While Chastain alone is worth the price of admission, the supporting cast leaves their own distinct impressions as well. Elba, whose recent work hasn’t exactly been reflective of his abilities, is in fine form opposite Chastain as her slow burn attorney Charlie Jaffey. The two share an unmistakable chemistry; the quick draw conversations about law, ethics, and parenting are in perfect synchronicity and played with just the right amount of cheek. You can feel the strain a lesser film would bow under to allow for the outright possibility of sexual chemistry between the two but Molly’s Game is not a lesser film. Rather, it leans into the complexities of their legal situation and eventual mutual respect. Costner, whose presences in the film is relegated to relevant flashbacks and a mighty powerful scene toward the end, fully embodies the kind of father you would expect an Olympic athlete to have. Chastain riffs off Costner’s detached love brilliantly, making the one lengthy scene the two share a painfully real, if slightly rushed, handling of a complicated family dynamic.
Sorkin’s keen script work and characterisation allow for even the smaller, supporting roles in the film to all leave an impression, too. The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd shines brightest here as a lush, bumbling player at Molly’s New York game, introducing himself to Molly each evening with greetings that sound like crime thriller novel titles. In one particularly amusing exchange, O’Dowd slurs several lines of poetry to Molly while expressing his feelings before asking her if she enjoys poetry, “until about two minutes ago I did,” Molly offers in return, never once lifting her eyes from the books. Micheal Cera also makes a welcome return to form as the extravagantly wealthy Player X, a character invented by the actual Molly to represent one of the bigger named celebrities at her games. Cera sinks his teeth into the role, and despite minimal screentime during the second act, Player X never failed to make an impression with his casual cruelty.
Oddly enough, the most unbalanced elements of Molly’s Game is in its baser stylisations. Most scenes in the film are directed with a steady hand, occasionally revealing some genuine talent (a prolonged abuse sequence is intimately horrific), but the overall composition of certain shots is uninspired. This is undoubtedly due in part to this being Sorkin’s first foray into directing, but the cinematography leans more toward television than film, an issue that plagued DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s previous work, The Girl On The Train. I’d also be at a loss to describe to you the soundtrack; even thinking back on it now, whatever was going on underneath the fiery dialogue alludes me. These issues do little to take away from the overall quality of the film and are more than forgivable fumbles for a first effort.
With Molly’s Game, we are finally treated to an unfiltered vision from Sorkin and an unleashed performance by Chastain, both of which are perfectly suited to the tale of Molly Bloom. While Sorkin may not know quite yet how to get the best out of his cinematography, his passion for film and brilliantly sharp wit are evident; both are invaluable tools that will undoubtedly continue to serve him well in whatever he chooses to do next. Beyond that, Chastain’s turn as Bloom isn’t just another notch in her already impressive belt, it’s the kind of performance that inspires audiences. Much of Molly’s Game is about the power struggles between men and woman, the imbalances that entail, and the often animalistic means through which balance is restored. Imbuing her with tangible brevity and flaws, Chastain calls forth a new kind of screen heroine and that alone makes Molly’s Game a film you need to see.