Not long into The West Wing and The Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut we learn a few choice phrases about the classic gambler’s card game, poker. ‘Pot committed’, ‘the flop’, ‘the fish’, ‘the nuts’. That final one being a somewhat less than classy term to describe having the best hand possible after all the cards are dealt. So hopefully you’ll excuse us when we tell you here that the newly-released, poker-centered crime drama Molly’s Game is the nuts.
Poker is, at its essence, a uniquely cinematic activity. The tension, the stakes, the psychology… And yet so rarely does Hollywood manage to produce true drama from it. Aside from a few classic games of Texas Hold ‘Em in old westerns, ‘the poker movie’ is a rare beast. Rarer still is a good one (perhaps 1998’s Rounders apart). Well, that’s just changed. Molly’s Game is arguably now ‘The Poker Movie’.
That’s not to say that the film bogs itself down in the minutiae of the card game. We certainly learn plenty about it and see plenty of raising and folding action. But Molly’s Game isn’t so much about poker as it is about Molly (Jessica Chastain) herself. And how she used poker to win an almost unwinnable hand.
Not that Molly even plays poker, you understand. Rather she gets rich off others playing. Very rich, in fact.
The story of an Olympic skiing hopeful quitting the slopes of Colorado to move to LA and then New York and setting up America’s most exclusive high stakes poker games may sound fanciful, but it’s all entirely true. The film is based on Molly Bloom’s rather clumsily-titled autobiography, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.
This wouldn’t be much of a drama were she to just retire with money in the bank and a successful career behind her though, would it? Molly’s dealt a bad hand when Russian mobsters join the usual table of sports stars, business tycoons and Hollywood A-Listers, turning up the heat from the FBI and forcing Ms Bloom to have to break the law a little and then deal with the rather harsh consequences.
That’s where it all goes wrong and she’s forced to recruit incorruptible hotshot criminal defence attorney Charlie Jaffey to represent her against a federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations) charge. Cue a typically on-form Idris Elba, but with an atypically off-form Noo Yoik accent.
The game might be Molly’s, but the movie is all Jessica’s. Interstellar and A Most Violent Year actress Jessica Chastain yet again reaffirms her position as one of the finest acting talents working today. For her, icy cool is a default setting, but her poker face soon wears off as things start to go awry. But no one in Hollywood does dignified stoicism and determined zeal in peril quite like Ms Chastain.
It’s testament to just how good our leading lady is here that the film’s two most memorable scenes involve turns from her co-stars Idris Elba and Kevin Costner – playing her pushy yet emotionally distant old man – that, next to Chastain’s understated class, look dangerously close to grandstanding and scenery chewing. Her back-and-forths with puppy-dog-eyed permadrunk client Chris O’Dowd provides plenty of light relief, proving Chastain understands levity too.
The film’s running time of 140 minutes zip past and the whole thing is paced incredibly well. Which is quite the feat when you consider that you’re ostensibly just watching a bunch of people playing – or talking about playing – cards. Naturally, the picture is more nuanced and multi-layered than that. For instance, there’s a subtle yet powerful feminist subtext to Molly’s Game that’s as maturely handled as it is timely.
Molly’s Game is the real deal but, alas, it’s not quite a full house. There are a few missteps here and there. But a smattering of clumsy daddy/daughter cod psychology and a script that could have used a little editing do very little to deaden the overall impact of Aaron Sorkin’s excellent and assured bow behind the camera.
Expect this film to make a big impact once the cards are dealt come awards season. The odds really are stacked in its favour. Best Picture nominations, potential Best Actress and Supporting Actor wins, guaranteed Best Adapted Screenplays awards… This film is a winning hand you’d be mad not to go all in for.
Okay, that’s enough with all the poker talk. Let’s keep it simple – go watch Molly’s Game.
Have you seen Molly’s Game yet? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!