The high stakes gamble of a no limit poker game in Los Angeles, rests in the hands of a confident woman named Molly. ‘Molly’s Game’ is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who learned that there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led us to believe. Over the course of the on-going investigation, Molly is held at threat to give up the names of her clients or face devastating consequences that will ruin her life tenfold. ‘Molly’s Game’ is written by critically acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin who is directing his first film. It is rated R for adult language, drug content, and some violence.
Aaron Sorkin goes all in on ‘Molly’s Game’, the directorial debut from the academy award winning screenplay writer who has crafted some pretty immense presences in on-screen domination. Molly Bloom might be his single greatest achievement to date, echoing the vibes of a female heroine who has a dominating presence over her male clients in a way that you wouldn’t see right away when you hear the basis of her real life story. The film itself in a transfixing dive into the seedy underground world of illegal gambling, complete with the styles and environments that embrace such a closed-off place. With his first time in the directing chair, Sorkin’s detailed writing carries over into lifting straight from the pages vividly, and when you can capitalize on the writer and director being the same person, it benefits the project in spades because there’s no dissention in communication between one direction versus the other. As far as biopics go, this one is every bit as entertaining as it is inclusive to anyone who does or does not have a vast array of knowledge with the game of poker and all of its terminology. Sorkin politely grabs our hands and refuses to ever let us get lost, despite the fact that the sequences are almost as quick as the witty banter that Sorkin has always been known for.
To that degree, the fast paced nature of conversations vibrantly paint a secretive world, while also harvesting the positive entertaining nature in telling a story between us and the title character. Sorkin is clever when it comes to teaching you much about his good or bad characters, making them practically leap over the boundaries as to what translates accordingly to the silver screen, and in his 135 minutes of film, he teaches us everything that there is to know about Bloom without it ever feeling like a slideshow presentation. If there was a weakness that I had in the film, and this is just nit-picking, it would be the dialogue sometimes coming off as too pandering to the entertainment spectrum. What I mean by this is that it can sometimes break the viewer’s immersive benefit within the film to reminding us that this is first-and-foremost a movie, and not the feeling of an actual conversation taking place. It’s almost too cool or hip to be honest, and Sorkin could take great feedback in learning to scale it back a bit, especially between the scenes that Chastain and Elba share that feel like a game of one-upping the other player.
Besides that though, ‘Molly’s Game’ is overall one of my favorite films of 2017 because of its versatile on-going storytelling that never feels counterproductive or plodding because of how much is included. For the entirety of the film, there’s really two different timelines being played out; one in Molly’s present with the unfolding court case ahead of her, and one in her past a few years back when she took up this streaky hosting gig. In addition to this, the film also spans back occasionally to show us a scene or two of Molly’s teenage career as an amateur freestyle skier. It may sound like a lot to take in, but each of these angles are not only pivotal to understanding the kind of environment that trained Molly to thrive under pressure, but also one that makes you fully engage in her character that makes some risky decisions. What’s even better is that Sorkin makes each transition from tier to tier feel seamless, using background locations as well as consistency amongst wardrobe in reminding you where you are at during that point of the script. The film is very well paced despite its ambitious runtime, and there wasn’t a single thing that I would’ve cut from the film to make it run slightly smoother. Everything here appropriately builds the expositional blocks of character tremendously, and it’s a constant reminder that Aaron’s first profession doesn’t go abandoned for his greener pastures at the top of the crew list.
Beyond the story, the technical spectrum here entices the audience fruitfully as well, building a consistency in the combination of lighting and editing that should both be no short of award deserving. The cinematography here is by Danish camera artist Charlotte Christensen, a magician behind the lens who has done work in ‘Fences’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ to name a couple. I say that because like those other films, ‘Molly’s Game’ as well feeds into its luminous environments that articulately absorb for the audience the champagne wishes and caviar dreams that surround the sport. Christensen herself also knows where and how to shoot Molly from the best angles, bringing out the best in visual qualities (wink wink), as well as facial emoting that constantly relate what the character is feeling at all times. As for the editing, this is bar-none the very best that I have seen this year. The trio of Alan Barmgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer all have their hands beautifully full here, inserting a barrage of colorful clips to Chastain’s verbal heavy narration that feeds into the lesson being taught before our very eyes. The differences between telling someone a story and showing them go a long way in how the audience can pick up on an area in knowledge that they aren’t familiar with, leaving them visually stimulated through each transitional edit that bridges the gap smoothly. Beyond that, I also think the trio offer versatility in their direction on when to cut during quick-cut dialogue scenes. Sometimes the quicker cut is better in keeping the consistency flowing in back-and-forth execution, but there are times when they leave the camera on Chastain for just a second longer, to read her reaction to the madness that is unfolding, and its those subtle instances that I approve on for these men never sticking to just one style in the long term.
As for performances, there are two leads and two supporting characters to praise here. On the former, Chastain continues to be a thunderous presence on-screen, commanding Molly with a combination of wits and beauty that make her easy to fall under her commanding spell. That’s not to say that Jessica is all looks, quite the opposite. She’s dangerous because of her beauty, but she’s hypnotizing because of the way she reads the board and gets to know her players one-by-one as they enter the room. If it wasn’t for Frances Macdormand in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, Chastain would be my Oscar favorite for the year, but even still her intimidating presence upon the character is something that shouldn’t be downplayed, and works wonders in inspiring the female audience who seek a credible female lead. Idris Elba is the other lead who I think really comes on in the second half of the film as Molly’s lawyer. Elba’s character feels like the only person who can match Molly for intelligence, and through two scenes of long-winded release that left me breathless, Idris proves that shouting is never necessary in grabbing the attention of the audience who eat out of his hand. His one negative is that his British accent does sometimes seep through, but it’s never enough to ruin the quality of his powerful performance. Likewise, Michael Cera and Kevin Costner are also both vital parts to the film, despite them only being in a few scenes each. For Cera, this is the best that I have ever seen him. As this nameless movie star (Rumored to be Tobey Maguire), he is cunning and persistent, breaking out of the Cera stronghold of characters that have unfairly judged the previous part of his career. This is proof that he has plenty to give to a film, and just when I fell in love with his character, he goes away for good. Finally, Costner again accepts an against-type role as Molly’s hard-nosed father who pushed her to her limits mentally and physically. The chemistry between them is alluring because they don’t have the best relationship. His character isn’t someone you ever support or take wisdom in, but by the end of the film, Kevin’s watery deposition reminds you of the parent who is dying to get out, even if it goes against type for much of Molly’s earlier life. Great performances all around.
THE VERDICT – Through an intriguing protagonist and an intelligent screenplay, Aaron Sorkin not only throws all of his chips in, but he also takes home the pot with one of the most strategically entertaining films of the year. Chastain and Elba dare you to take your eyes off of them, breathing in two characters who can’t be bluffed in all of their stage-feeling focus. Sometimes the dialogue can sour a scene or two too much with its wink-and-nod qualities, but ‘Molly’s Game’ is too snappy and stylish not to indulge in, giving us one game where we all win.