'Molly's Game': Film Review | TIFF 2017

One strong woman and many rich men make for a good show.

Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, who ran the world's most exclusive high-stakes poker game, in Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut.

Quite aside from its considerable merit as a singular story neatly told, it’s a good bet that Molly’s Game packs more voiceover narration than any Hollywood feature ever made, which is to say that it’s practically papered with it wall-to-wall. Fortunately, the words have been written by the ever-eloquent Aaron Sorkin and are spoken with skill and speed by Jessica Chastain as a way of telling, in as much detail as a mainstream film could allow, the dense and complicated story of Hollywood and Wall Street high-stakes poker den mother Molly Bloom. In his overdue directorial debut, Sorkin both entertains and makes you lean in to absorb every detail of this wild tale, which boasts a stellar cast to help tell it. Audiences of some sophistication, and especially denizens of Hollywood and upscale New York, will eat it up; the boonies not at all.

Sorkin has made a specialty of finding ways to tell dense and complicated stories about fascinating real-life contemporary figure — Moneyball, The Social Network and Steve Jobs all qualify — and here he takes on his first female heroine, if that she is: Molly Bloom, a fearsomely sharp woman who, her U.S. Ski Team potential thwarted by a freak injury and law school abandoned, hits Los Angeles and is soon running one of the most illustrious poker games in town.

Molly is hard as nails — her tough-minded father (Kevin Costner, in fine form) has seen to that. And while it may be difficult for lay people to absorb the finer points of Molly’s business acumen as she explains things in a torrent of narration, it’s immediately apparent that she knows what she’s doing and is nobody’s fool or plaything. Two of her bywords are, “I don’t trust people” and “I don’t have any heroes,” which essentially means she has no illusions about anyone’s good intentions; she plays for keeps, just like they do at the table.

Molly’s real-life games were populated by some famous members of Hollywood’s elite, but she kept most of their names a secret in her book and the film follows suit. Still, you get the idea, and there is plenty of vicarious pleasure to be had watching these characters act badly and lose, and sometimes win, while their host keeps a close eye on things and rakes it in. The bullet-train narration sometimes provides an indigestible amount of information, but you’re swept along anyway by the sheer skill she commands and the intoxication of the ride, which lasts for eight years, until the FBI busts it up.

Although the identities of some of her regulars have emerged in recent times and 31 of them were arrested, Molly was not the one identifying them. She receives long lectures on the subject from her sharp attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who struggles to figure out how to defend her in the circumstances.  

Although there are plenty of gambling scenes, Sorkin never really tries to build suspense out of a particular game or hand and therefore isn’t trying to compete with such gambling classics as Bay of Angels, The Cincinnati Kid, California Split and any number of others. The focus remains resolutely on Molly, and one issue that emerges here is that, with all her insights into the games that unfold under her watchful eye, it’s unclear to the viewer how she can follow and relay such thorough information about the hands and strategies of the men (and they are all men) around the table.

And despite the torrents of commentary from her, she never discloses anything personal about her feelings for anyone else. Even the hardest cases soften up to reveal something from the inside from time to time, but with her it’s as if emotion and desire don’t exist. Nor is there even a trace of sexuality in her entire being, the absence of which is never remarked upon by anyone.

Therefore, despite Sorkin’s success in plumbing both the sources of her resolve (her father, her athletic competitiveness) and her intelligence, there’s not a whole person here; chilly and forbidding only begin to describe her.

Halfway through the story, the setting switches to New York. Ready to get back in the game, Molly is done with show folk and has decided to cultivate rich Russian Jews and mobsters as her new players. She requires a $250,000 buy-in, easily attracts players with gorgeous females populating the elegant rooms and is soon overseeing two games per day, six days a week.

But when you run afoul of any of these guys, it’s no joke, as she learns to her peril. And when the FBI busts up her game and she’s forced to decide whether she’ll spill the beans or be included in a mob indictment, Elba makes the most of a great speech Sorkin has written against the latter option. Considering the dire circumstances, there’s a happy ending.

With Miss Sloane last year and Zero Dark Thirty before that, Chastain is definitely in a moment of playing very hard-edged women without personal lives (Miss Sloane at least had a secret gigolo), and the lack of either this or any female friends (there are only employees) makes one wonder if Molly has truly cut sex, romance and even friends out of her life; there’s no mention or glimpse of any of the above, which makes her feel like an incomplete character. All the same, Chastain roars through the performance with a force and take-no-prisoners attitude that keeps one rapt.

Elba is only the most important of the numerous male figures that pop here; other actors that make a strong impact in limited exposure include Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Jon Bass, Michael Kostroff and a truly hilarious Chris O’Dowd.

As a director, Sorkin keeps things rolling relentlessly and gets fine results from the actors down the line, so one has to imagine he’ll mostly continue to direct his own scripts from now on. The film looks sharp and a trio of editors keeps thing pacey despite the 140-minute running time.

Production companies: Entertainment One, Pascal Pictures, The Mark Gordon Company
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Brian D’Arcy James, Jon Bass, J.C. MacKenzie, Grahame Greene, Samantha Isler, Michael Kostroff
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin, based on the Molly Bloom book
Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker
Producers: Mark Gordon, Amy Pascal, Matt Jackson
Executive producers: Leopoldo Gout, Stuart Besser
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: David Wasco
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Josh Schaeffer, Elliot Graham
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Casting: Francine Maisler
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)

140 minutes