“Poker isn’t a game of chance. It’s a game of skill.” No line could fit the life of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) so perfectly. The film follows Bloom’s life from competitive women’s skiing to assistant in an underground poker game to managing her very own exclusive high-stakes games. The story is filled with the rich and famous, the Russian mob, FBI raids… and it’s all based on true events.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, his writing has such an identity, a style in both storytelling and dialogue that it can transcend a very capable director. Here, we are treated to double the Sorkin, and it is just as masterful as those who adapted his work before.
The movie is the typical rise and fall of a figure, and has all of the trappings of similar stories, but it is one worth visiting due to its unique perspective on a world hidden just below the surface, and, more importantly, is told from a woman’s point of view.
The timeline can come across a little messy at first, with flashbacks to Molly’s younger years (where a fairly underutilized Kevin Costner roams) as it is interspersed with her legal troubles and the throughline of her rise through poker games. Despite its messiness, the timeline is never confusing due to Sorkin’s choice to add narration to keep the viewer straight.
Yet the film’s overreliance on this voiceover is a particular detriment; however, without it the entire film’s voice would vanish. This is not always a slight, though, as it fills in the information of each meaningful and effective scene. It helps when it is written by Sorkin, whose verbosity in scenes is at an all-time high here, as wonderful as ever for wordy film fans. The back-and-forth between Molly and Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), her defense lawyer, is especially playful and quick-witted, and becomes real when it needs to and allows two fantastic actors to portray their plight and the stakes that chance brought them. Elba has always had a knack for driving home a scene, and does so twice in expert fashion.
The poker, what was initially thought to be the main draw, becomes almost secondary to the goings-on around the table. But the poker sequences are still quite strong: there’s the dealing in, the bust-outs, but it’s the full-tilt that is the most interesting: experienced by Bill Camp’s character, an expert poker player whose mini-arc only lasts a handful of minutes, it manages to show the depths of gambling addiction. Michael Cera, as Player X (an amalgamation of various celebrity players), is the highlight of the poker games, his enjoyment of the setting and self-proclaimed love of “destroying people’s lives” showing that not everything is about the money.
The goings-on around the poker, with the interesting players that come and talk with Molly during the quieter moments (including a rather fun Chris O’Dowd), and Molly’s struggles both internally and externally, all keep the film moving. But it is the “present day” timeline that is by far the most interesting. Chastain and Elba have great chemistry in their scenes, bouncing off one another and letting Sorkin’s writing and directing flow. Chastain, in particular, has a stoic sturdiness in her performance, self-assured but deservedly so.
There can be times where the film can falter. The aforementioned voiceover can at times lead to exposition becoming the only forward momentum, telling rather than showing for stretches. With a 140 minute runtime, that can become a little trying. But then a scene would snap things back into place, and flashes of greatness occur. There is a particular scene in the third act that lays out the meaning behind the film and its lead, and, in another less capable filmmaker’s hands, would have come across as unnecessary and beating the audience over the head. Here, though, it unfurls cleverly and expertly.
This is the main takeaway of Molly’s Game: it is told cleverly and expertly. Its running time may be long, but many of those minutes are spent inside the actions and the mind of a fascinating character, and a lead performance out of Chastain that is just as wonderful as those that have come before from her. This film was not made with chance; it was made with skill.