In terms of contemporary American screenwriters, other than Tarantino, none go more recognised and revered than Aaron Sorkin. Having penned the screenplays for A Few Good Men, The Social Network (for which he won a well-deserved Academy Award) and Steve Jobs, the reputation was already set in stone to conjure up the excitement necessary for his directorial debut, Molly’s Game. And while it may play it a little safe in terms of what Sorkin feels comfortable in telling and the style in which he likes to report it, it certainly proves why he is so respected within the industry, displaying flourishes of screenwriting genius that are supplemented with some terrific performances and subtle camerawork.
To quickly set-up the general jist of the plot, Molly’s Game follows the real-life underground drama that enveloped around Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), whose profession as a personal assistant to a less than likeable real estate agent (Jeremy Strong) led to her involvement with a private gambling ring, eventually trailing off to set up her own high stakes poker games for celebrities and Russian mafia men alike. One thing led to another, resulting in the interference of the authorities and Molly’s appeal to Charlie (Idris Elba), a lawyer with the chance to break Molly away from a damning prison sentence.
It certainly sounds familiar, the old ‘in-way-over-their-head’ scenario. However, Sorkin imbues the film with some well-needed narrative flair, his script delivering some delicious dialogue across its lengthy runtime. The film relies heavily on Chastain and her narration in this regard, delving into the gritty details of Molly’s decision-making: luckily, she’s asked to deliver Sorkin’s words and they flow deliciously through the film, feeding us all the information we need on poker plays, individual motivations and what might or might not happen next. It’s a refreshing use of the technique, a method of storytelling I’ve often found weak, save for a few innovative efforts such as in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Adam McKay’s The Big Short. This film certainly borrows from the latter and is all the better for it, bringing the necessary goods without spoon-feeding it to the audience: Sorkin allows the audience to feel intelligent enough to match Molly, catching all of her intellectual brilliance in a bottle for us to take home.
The performances are essential in persuading us to fully buy Sorkin’s dialogue however, as it doesn’t follow the usual tenets of the spoken word: lacking in the colloquialisms and ellipses of our everyday discourse, it takes a strong actor to encourage us to subscribe to Sorkin’s script and run with it like any other movie. Thankfully, Sorkin has hired two brilliant talents in the form of Chastain and Elba to pull us through. Chastain does almost all of the heavy lifting here. Her narration is engaging in tone and always inflected in a way that speaks Molly, rather than hinting at Chastain cashing in a pay-check behind the microphone. Furthermore, Chastain and Elba have electric chemistry: their rapid-fire exchanges are exhilarating, full of wit, depth and sentiment, so that it is impossible not to appreciate their efforts.
However, the most important point to clarify is the extent to which Sorkin succeeds in his first directing gig. Now, this is where feelings get a little mixed: it’s a yin and yang situation. On the one hand, the unshowy camerawork of Charlotte Bruus Christensen refuses to draw our attention away from the protagonists. With her consistent use of close to mid-range shots, Christensen clearly wants us to hone in on Chastain’s remarkable performance and all of its intricacies. Alternatively, this is indicative of Sorkin playing it a little safe: he is relying on his dialogue pulling him through, without trying to signal himself as much of a visual storyteller in the process. With A Few Good Men, The Social Network and Steve Jobs, we had some fantastic cinematographic delights on display, each led by a director with his own unique flair: Rob Reiner, David Fincher and Danny Boyle respectively. However, Sorkin hasn’t quite reached that potential yet with his effort here. While Christensen’s cinematography certainly succeeds in what Sorkin no doubt wanted it to achieve, there may have been room for a little more experimentation, as seen in the aforementioned parallel, The Big Short.
Ultimately, however, Sorkin has delivered yet another high hand, a royal flush of a screenwriting treat. With the amount of information that is covered, it is remarkable that Molly’s Game comes off feeling as cohesive and enjoyable as it does. What could have been an expository slog has metamorphosed into a focused character-study of a fascinating woman with intelligence and gumption to boot. All of this adds up to a fulfilling experience: as it’s Molly’s/Chastain’s movie, it makes sense that the dialogue feels well and truly comfortable in her control. With a little more panache here and a more refined pace there, Molly’s Game might have added up to an even greater experience. As it stands, it’s simply another example of why Sorkin remains one of the greatest American screenwriters of our generation.