The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
Molly’s Game, the directorial debut from lauded screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, begins with a giddy voiceover monologue about failure in sports, on both the general concept and the one specifically suffered by American downhill skier and Olympic hopeful Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) after an errant frozen stick on the race course leads to a career-ending injury. This wordy burst of overbearing father (Kevin Costner)-ridden backstory, statistics, downhill skiing 101, and pop philosophy that’s packed almost as tightly with directorial flourishes as it is with verbiage, serves as an effective litmus test for the viewer.
If you love watching and listening to a particularly game Chastain expertly navigate Sorkin’s trademark bursts of dialogue as nimbly as her pre-injury Molly navigates moguls, you’re in for a treat, as the pair tackle the true-crime story of what happens next. If you find it a tad cloying, overbearing, or simply too Sorkin-esque for your personal tastes, it’s really not going to get any better for you from there. But it’s also an efficient way to establish Molly’s thoroughly efficient character. The idea of showing instead of telling isn’t necessary, or even particularly possible. Not when you’re dealing with a sharp, smart, and hyper-verbal competitive athlete-turned-leader of the most exclusive underground poker rings in the world, who constantly assesses herself and everything in her sphere and then discusses it all at great length.
Buried somewhere in all of this, Molly briefly touches on the importance of timing. She’s specifically talking about the precision with which you have to hit each mogul and angle while racing downhill, but it’s equally applicable to the film itself as a whole. This particular work is hitting at what could be the perfect time for a film of this nature in our current cultural and political climate. Provided that we survive these things, Molly’s Game could very well occupy a space in cinematic history that goes beyond its merits as a film.
This is not to say that it has none. Based on Bloom’s 2014 memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker (even when it comes to titles, Molly is clearly not a believer in brevity), the film is a clever, fast, and fun romp through the underground poker world, the lives of the celebrities and other high-powered men who participate, and the moral code of the woman who runs it all. Chastain is at the top of her form as Molly, dominant and driven, and multiple steps ahead of everyone else in the room until a collection of well-armed FBI agents show up at her door in the middle of the night.
Her co-stars do an admirable job of keeping up, particularly Idris Elba as her lawyer who takes what could be a thankless sidekick role – if his job in the story is to represent her in a court of law, his function in the context of the film is essentially to represent her in the court of the viewer’s opinion – and makes it his own. Michael Cera serves as an impressively stealth slimeball as Player X, the movie star who becomes one of Molly’s early allies in the game, and Chris O’Dowd is disproportionately amusing as another key player later on. Sorkin is not immune to the missteps of a first-time director, but he’s not without his gifts behind the camera, either. (It is amusing to note, though, that the biggest praise coming out of the early reviews for Molly’s Game at TIFF was that his directorial style somehow kept his worst impulses as a screenwriter in line.)
What makes this thoroughly capable crime film truly intriguing, though, are its subtle changes in theme from much of Sorkin’s past work and most of American cinema’s flashier, higher-profile dramas. While Molly is an extremely capable woman who has enjoyed a great deal of success in her life, her cinematic story is framed through her failures. It begins with her literal fall from Olympic grace, and then quickly cuts to her being arrested as her attempt at a second act in life comes crashing down. The notion of chance and luck versus hard work and personal culpability is also introduced in these moments, and recurs throughout the film. Poker, as Molly proudly argues, is a game of skill, not a game of chance, and it’s clear that throughout most of her life, she has seen her existence in a similar fashion – and herself as both a master player and the architect of her own demise. But she’s also someone whose biggest goal in life was thwarted by a fluke.
Watching Molly try to negotiate all of these concepts as she fights for her life and her integrity in court is interesting, but watching all of this happen in a film of this nature and stature in the United States at this point in the country’s history is fascinating – and also quite refreshing. While there have been many American artists who have brilliantly criticized and analyzed their country over its lifespan – Sorkin himself famously ripped the concept of America a new one in the early moments of The Newsroom – there’s always been a certain amount of American mythology that has crept into the nation’s most sweeping cinematic stories. Heroes are self-made. Chance has nothing to do with it. Success is the inevitable result.
And, for most of the country’s lifespan, the rest of the world has either bought into this kind of art, or at least tolerated it well enough. Americans had the budget and bluster for it, so why not let them have their self-indulgent fun? At a time when the failures and deeply seated issues with the U.S. as both a concept and a functioning society are impossible to ignore or explain away, the rest of us aren’t really here for those fairy tales any longer. So there’s something genuinely exciting about seeing one of the nation’s greatest exports – the flashy, swaggering rags-to-riches story – bring a touch of nuance and introspection to this well-trod gospel.
Molly’s Game is a successful crime drama, but it’s also a film that acknowledges the presence of both good and bad luck in the pursuit of excellence. Most importantly, it allows failure to exist as a living and breathing entity, rather than a tragic ending or a fate simply suffered by the morally impure. And that is what you might call exceptional.