Aaron Sorkin’s first film as director is a biopic of Molly Bloom, and based on her biography of the same name, but it’s not exactly an adaptation of the book. Instead, Molly’s Game takes place after the publication of the book, which detailed Bloom’s involvement in organising high stakes poker games – first legal, then illegal – followed by her detainment by the FBI. As the film opens, she’s been detained once again, after a period of apparent lawfulness, and requires the assistance of a lawyer in order to avoid going to jail. For the most part, the film is structured around a sustained conversation between Bloom, played by Jessica Chastain, and this lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, played by Idris Elba, as Bloom recounts the history of her poker games, which started in Los Angeles, moved to Manhattan and ended up in Brooklyn at the behest of the Russian Mafia. Formerly a professional skier who quit after a freak accident, and is now estranged from her father Larry, a clinical psychologist and academic played by Kevin Costner, Bloom puts all her intelligence and resources into these games, placing herself at enormous financial risk to keep them legal, and then resorting to more considerable personal risks when illegality becomes a necessity. Each of these games – the LA game, the Manhattan game and the Brooklyn game – could easily sustain an entire film, or even a television series, with Sorkin, Chastain and (indirectly) Bloom conjuring up a world that feels so expansive that it’s almost a shame that it’s restricted to a single release, with all kinds of side characters and situations seeming to demand more scrutiny and light.
Still, this is an extremely impressive debut for Sorkin, if only because the screenplay is so front and centre, and dictates the film to such an extent, that it doesn’t require much more from the camera than to simply keep up with it, through a combination of escalating cross-editing, montage and elastic panning. While Sorkin has long been renowned for his rapid-fire delivery, this is easily the fastest and most hyperactive script in his career – at least in places – to the point where it feels as if he might have deliberately amplified everything about his style to make his transition to direction feel more natural and assured, but also to provide himself with a script that only he could properly direct. As a result, the anxiety and paranoia that suffuses so many of his screenplays reaches fever pitch here – or, rather, starts at fever pitch – with the quieter scenes only lasting long enough to provide the characters, and the audience, with the minimal amount of breathing-space before the torrent of language resumes. That anxiety works elegantly as the backdrop to what is, at heart, a recession narrative, with Bloom finding that her poker game ends up servicing the few people left in the country who can genuinely afford to gamble. Against that backdrop, speech and risk are more conflated than ever before in Sorkin’s canon – in many scenes, to speak is to take a considerable risk – while Bloom’s increasing alignment and identification with the 99% simultaneously imbues the film with a grungier 90s vibe, and specifically a depiction of underground gambling as a form of hacking, or culture jamming, that now seems inextricably associated with a certain kind of pre-millennial countercultural impetus.
It goes without saying that Chastain works brilliantly as a mouthpiece – she has to, or the film wouldn’t work – and that her delivery is just flat and affectless enough to sustain the screenplay without ever quite devolving into a mere mouthpiece either. The challenge is set right from the opening credits, too, where a hyperactive montage sequence of iconic sporting events forces Chastain’s voiceover to accelerate and accelerate until it’s clear that this is, at some level, a sports movie above all, shot and narrated at the pace of a high-octane sports broadcast. Certainly, no film about cards, casinos or gambling that I’ve ever seen has been as anxious to pitch itself as a sports film, with Molly’s father Larry feeling like something of a spokesman for this dimension of the script – a psychology professor, who insists that academic and athletic excellence go hand in hand, and that all good mind games and psychological manipulation have an element of athleticism and sportsmanship. Never before have the behaviourist overtones of Sorkin’s dialogue between so clear, as the film breaks down any ostensible distinction between speech and action (“Do you understand what I’m saying?” “I understand the words that you’re saying”) producing characters who are what they say, and say what they are. Even at their most elusive and deceptive moments, then, all the characters in Molly’s Game – and especially Molly herself, as the voice of the film’s aesthetic – have a kind of unassailable frankness and openness, which contributes in no small part to the film’s dynamic tension between secrecy and disclosure.
As might be expected, poker provides the perfect venue for this obsession with the physicality, plasticity and materiality of language, with Sorkin and Molly both relishing the specialized vocabulary of the poker table, and using the heightened formality, precision and functionality of its nomenclature and lexicon as a guiding principle for the screenplay as a whole. In particular, Molly delights in constant repetition in order to draw out the sounds of words, how they sound together, and the extent to which they can be parsed and recombined to produce new situations. It’s no exaggeration to say that words and poker chips are fused into a single language across the film – a language that operates stochastically, displaying discernible patterns but never quite capable of being predicted or articulated before those patterns disclose themselves in any one situation. Recognising that analogy is what makes Molly so adept at organising games, as well as so compelling in her own delivery, as she disseminates each and every utterance with the full awareness that no matter the collateral they represent – hard cash, true love, a Monet painting – the value of words, like that of poker chips, ultimately lies in their exchange value and bargaining power.
Part of what makes that such an original premise is that it untethers Sorkin’s verbal style from the machismo that usually subtends it, which presumably has something to do with Sorkin himself being behind the camera, as he exudes a new confidence and willingness to put his words in the mouth of someone more unlikely and unexpected. While this might be Sorkin’s first film as director, then, it feels as collaborative as any of his previous efforts, partly because of the extent to which Molly herself is framed as a director, moving from one perfect crafted poker tableau to the next. In fact, Molly’s genius in arranging poker games lies precisely in her ability to scrutinise, curate and manage the minutiae of machismo and male charisma that entranced an older generation of Sorkin films. In the process, the charismatic brinksmanship that also once preoccupied Sorkin is here revised and condensed to a series of wordless standoffs across the poker table, with the burden of dialogue (or monologue) now shifted to Molly as she remains as incidental, invisible and inoffensive as possible to that masculinist charisma even as she consummately manages and maintains it.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Molly’s relationship with the two archetypally Sorkinesque figures in the film – her lawyer and her father. In an earlier iteration of the film, Idris’ character might have functioned to inject some compensatory machismo, but here his presence simply burnishes and intensifies Chastain, to the point where his presence is almost irrelevant and redundant from the outset. Every effort he might make to mansplain or to arrogate the kinds of charisma present in early Sorkin has already been pre-empted and contained by Molly’s management of the poker game, with his final revelation that he only represented her at his daughter’s request coming off as sheepish rather than paternal or profound. Similarly, her final encounter with her father involves him psychologizing her and declaring that she has an addiction to “having power over powerful men,” in a monologue that becomes involuted just when it might be expected to reach some kind of profundity. Costner really shines here, invoking his gravitas as an actor only to fall back on clichés, platitudes and a sentimental, shaggy form of exposition that’s totally out of character with the clean, lean efficiency of Molly, her game and the style of the script itself.
What ensues, then, can only be described as Sorkin’s take on feminism – a damning image of the impact on women of fathers, father-figures, voices of paternal authority, and anyone else determined to treat them as daughters above all else. As Molly finds that “the humdrum and depression…give way to blinding anger at the whims of men,” it becomes clear that the charismatic machismo Sorkin once pedalled is complicit in the economic downturn and recession that looms over the film – that is, complicit in its own destruction and devolution, making this something of a spiritual sequel to the self-immolating masculinity of The Newsroom, albeit far more accomplished in its reach, vision and insight. The result is a peculiarly and profoundly gendered vision of the global financial crisis, and of the limits of American pragmatism, since while diligence, hard work and a frank, functional response to impediments may get Molly a long way, they reach their inexorable limits when her clients tip over into the 1%, who remain immune to hard work, are the most difficult to manage, and whose whims and tantrums – the bread and butter of Sorkin’s earlier films – are the key risk factor of Molly’s project. As with David Mamet, American pragmatism and machismo have often seemed to go hand in hand in Sorkin’s work, but they’re dissociated here in quite a remarkable way – remarkable enough to almost constitute a revision of his entire filmography, part and parcel of a late blooming of his career that started with his extraordinary screenplay for Steve Jobs. While the end comes quite quickly, Molly’s Game is above all a story of quick transition, and how adeptly Molly processes and adapts to quick transitions – an exhilarating and extraordinary challenge to the audience to do the same.