A year after her criminally undercelebrated turn in Miss Sloane, Jessica Chastain once again proves she’s one of our most exciting actresses in Molly’s Game. This time, instead of the minefield of politics, she’s navigating the equally male-dominated world of underground gambling, and—armed with a script full of tasty lines by writer and first-time director Aaron Sorkin—she does so with a bracing confidence that nonetheless wanes on occasion to show us her vulnerable side.
In a coincidental dovetail with I, Tonya, this fact-based drama, based on Molly Bloom’s autobiographical book, opens with Molly recounting how her trek toward winter-sports glory (as an Olympic skier) was permanently sidelined by a severe injury. We then catch up with her years later in a shabby West Hollywood apartment, from which she is violently wrested by a full FBI team armed with automatic weapons. Deep in some very hot water due to her involvement with high-stakes poker games attended by movie stars, millionaires and, inevitably, mobsters, she’s in desperate need of an attorney with a chance of defending her against the big guns aimed her way. Fortunately, Molly is able to convince Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, rebounding very nicely from The Dark Tower) to take her case, despite the fact that she’s far from able to pay his usual fee.
Their relationship of growing mutual respect is one of the best things about Molly’s Game, and it gives Chastain and Elba numerous chances to shine. I could watch these two stand in a room trading Sorkin’s lines for all of the two-hour-plus running time, but the film is not a chamber piece. With Molly providing brisk narration, we’re taken back and forth from her legal travails through the circumstances of her rise and fall. Abandoning law-school possibilities following her skiing accident, she travels to Los Angeles and takes a job with a sleazy, condescending realtor (Jeremy Strong), who begins employing her as the decorative overseer of the big-money card games he holds at the “Cobra Club”—read the Viper Room. This is one of many pseudonyms the film employs, following the lead of Bloom’s tell-almost-all book; another is “Player X,” a young actor and prominent fixture at the games, played by Michael Cera (and standing in for Tobey Maguire).
Molly is a quick learner and savvy enough to take over the tournament in LA and later set up shop in New York, where her downfall is precipitated by the involvement of Russian gangsters (whose criminal activities she claims ignorance of) and the local mob (who make no attempt to disguise their intentions). With its nimble editing and constant voiceover, Molly’s Game also joins I, Tonya in harking back to Martin Scorsese’s explorations of criminality and financial chicanery (and how interesting that his explorations of ferocious masculinity have spiritually inspired two of this year’s best movies about women).
Chastain traverses Molly’s ups and downs with a steely, forceful, fascinating resolve, making the most of this driven, conflicted, complex role. She’s as effective displaying the wiles that allowed Molly to deal with the many powerful men in the gambling milieu as she is in conveying Molly’s principled side: A key conflict is that she refuses to release cyber-evidence that could help her case but might also destroy the lives of others. Chastain gets a number of chances to additionally reveal Molly’s more sensitive side in one-on-one scenes with her co-stars—not just Charlie but a few of the players, in minidramas that Sorkin nicely sketches in amidst the bigger saga. The most notable is one involving Harlan Eustice (Bill Camp), a purveyor of low-rent entertainment presumably modeled on Girls Gone Wild entrepreneur Joe Francis, a real-life regular at the games.
The key quiet moments, however, belong to Chastain and Kevin Costner, playing Molly’s father Larry, a psychologist who relentlessly pushed her and her brothers to succeed from their childhood. (Those siblings are largely ignored by the film, which creates a bit of a hole in her story, albeit one perhaps intended to reflect Molly’s singleminded pursuit of her own goals.) It may be a familiar trope to cinematically psychoanalyze a troubled heroine in terms of her relationship with her dad, but Sorkin and these two actors make their exchanges feel real and relevant, particularly a late-in-the-film meeting in Central Park.
Molly’s Game continues Sorkin’s fascination with delving into and elucidating the psyches of self-made successes, as seen in his scripts for The Social Network, Steve Jobs et al. It also once more showcases his skills as a wordsmith, while revealing his debuting talent for putting those words on screen in a vibrant, propulsive manner. In the film’s narrative, Molly’s book has been in print for a while, and she reveals that she has turned down five potentially lucrative movie offers due to “creative differences.” In real life, her story has clearly fallen into the right hands.