Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Running Time: 140 mins
Synopsis: The true story of Molly Bloom (Chastain), a once promising Olympic-level Skier, who ended up running one of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games before being swooped on by the FBI in the dead of night. A tale of lavish spending, Hollywood royalty, sports stars and the Russian mob. Facing a harsh sentence, her only ally is defence lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Elba) who begins to see that there is more to Molly than the trashy tabloid articles.
Aaron Sorkin has never made it easy for himself. Not content with challenging the tongues of actors with his 1000 words a minute dialogue, he has routinely picked subjects that very rarely lend themselves to cinematic thrill rides. The birth of Facebook, Steve Jobs giving three product launches, even The West Wing was deemed risky. A wordy multi episode saga about the pen pushers residing in The White House. All have seemed challenging, but all ended up becoming modern classics, not least through the works of their talented directors. So for his next script Sorkin has gone twofold, scripting a true story about poker (hardly a thrilling proposition outside of a James Bond action fest) and deciding to beat said directors at their own game by making his debut behind the camera. The results are prime Sorkin, for good and bad.
As to be expected we start out heavy. Sorkin has never been one to ease his audiences in and Molly’s Game is no exception. The film leaping into a non-contextualised flashback to young Molly, set to the tones of adult Molly (Jessica Chastain) detailing just why what we’re seeing matters (in a touch none more Sorkin it appears it does not-although a late act moment re-aligns that with clever foresightedness). A once promising Olympic level skier, but brought to heel after a horrific accident, of which we see unfold in this opening sequence. Those unfamiliar with his work may find this heavy expositioning and motor mouthed pace hard to take in but believe me as with all his work it’ll just click. Your mind catching up as the film progresses. Sorkin fills his words with such factual detail that you cannot help but get sucked in, although even in this opening sequence something feels a little off. The direction a little lacklustre, unsure whether to be flamboyant to match the dialogue or straight faced so as not to distract.
After this the cleverness of structure that Molly’s Game uses reveals itself. We flash forward to post the films big events and to Molly arrested. Dragged out of bed in the dead of night, and left to defend herself against a prosecution determined to discover everything she knows about her former clients. You see years previously Molly ended up running one of the most exclusive poker games in the world. Starting off small as a waifish assistant to Jeremy Strong’s loutish ringleader before branching out on her own. Being such an exclusive game meant famous celebrities, sports stars and politicians were part of her group, albeit the film like Molly in real life resists mentioning them at all. The only actual celebrity is a rather game Micheal Cera, playing a tougher version of himself and reminding us all that his baby faced nature just doesn’t work now he’s older. Soon enough more powerful, more violent players enter the game and events grow wildly out of her control. Sorkin intercuts the journey of her rise with the aftermath in which she aligns herself with smooth talking lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, giving good accent and witty support) to plead her case. Now whilst this structure isn’t necessarily the most original, oh and there is also a further use of flashbacks to her childhood, his execution is rather clever.
Within the past segments wherein we watch Molly develop into a power player Chastain narrates everything with all the usual wit, humour and candour that Sorkin knows best. Whilst the lawyer based present day scenes forgo all narration entirely. It is a small aspect but works wonders to separate things. It also nicely juxtaposes the brash confidence of the flashback scenes, Molly’s cocky voiceover developing as she gets more brazen, with the remorseful melancholy of her at her lowest ebb in the present day. The narration is both a blessing and a curse however. Sorkin’s gift for smart as a whip, eloquent dialogue graces these scenes with fizz, excitement and clarity. But in so smothering every scene with a character basically describing the scene to us it too often overwhelms our ability to emotionally connect. Sorkin has never been the most emotional of writers, favouring intellectual arrogance and dazzling wordplay over the basest of feelings. But other directors who have adapted his work have taken a step back from his dialogue to look at how form can boost the emotional quotient. Take Fincher’s use of shrewd editing in Social Network or Danny Boyle’s orchestral framing of dialogue in Steve Jobs. Sorkin seems a bit too in love with his voice (via Chastain of course) to step back and let the film breathe.
Any emotion to be found is squarely down to a tour de force Jessica Chastain performance. At her best when playing strong, intelligent power figures, and here she is pure fire, using her barely contained sexuality as a distraction but never letting it define her. Remarkably Sorkin avoids giving her an un-warranted romantic partner, despite vague hints surrounding her and Elba’s character. She also never forgets the vulnerabilities just below the surface, seeping out at times when she and us are least expecting it. Molly has a clear evolution throughout but Chastain never loses sight of the principals that remain right from the start. Her loyalty and stubbornness primarily the reason she is in this predicament in the first place. She chomps into Sorkin’s dialogue like she hasn’t eaten in weeks whilst still remembering to flesh her out into an actual individual (whilst a talent for dialogue Sorkin can be guilty of writing mouthpieces rather than characters). Not least in the relationship she has with her father. There is little ground broken in the tensions found within this bond, he driven to push her to the limits of her abilities, her never seeing him as any real affectionate presence. However things do take a surprising turn in the closing moments Sorkin framing this relationship within something more darker and delivering it with dialogue fireworks that manage to do something unexpected, elicit tears. In no small part down to Chastain and Kevin Costner, subverting type by playing Molly’s abrasive disciplined father but one with a shameful side he admits to with heartfelt honesty. It is the best he’s been in a long while and proof that he may have been wasted playing America’s rugged sweetheart for all these years.
Molly’s Game is a solid debut for a man more attuned to the written word than the moving picture. Sorkin keeping the pace at a constant pitch, despite the needlessly overlong running time (a few subplots could have been trimmed down), and knowing that to make this pitch work he needs to let great actors lead the way. (I’ve failed to mention Chris O’Dowd’s rather unexpected but brilliant appearance as a weak willed drunken gambler). There are some stylistic flourishes, for example a poker game framed with on screen graphics describing who has what hand, but he seems hesitant to use them, meaning when they do appear they feel out of place rather than as part of a whole. It represents a bright future behind the camera though and I’d be interested to see what he can do with someone else’s script. In a career filled with ballsy moves and for a man so enamoured with his own voice (a damn fine one I must add) that could be the ballsiest move yet.
Verdict: Filled with Aaron Sorkin’s trademark speed, humour and smarts Molly’s Game wraps you in a story that appears dull on the surface but turns out to be anything but. It sometimes struggles to be heard above its own voice but a formidable cast help matters, not least of all a career best Jessica Chastain.