Chastain’s powerful performance rescues ‘Molly’s Game’ from Sorkin’s troublesome writing

Michael Gibson/Motion Picture Artwork/STX/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

There is no question, from the first to the last moment of “Molly’s Game,” that this is an Aaron Sorkin film. In addition to writing the film’s screenplay, Sorkin directed it — a first for the famed scribe. Fast-paced, dense dialogue is cut with sharp, equally rapid footage. Fans of “The Social Network” will no doubt recognize the distinct Sorkin-ness threaded throughout the movie.

“Molly’s Game” is based on the real-life story of Molly Bloom — the film picks up two years after she was charged with running an illegal gambling ring. All her assets were seized, and she has withdrawn from that seedy world. Despite this, the FBI raids her apartment one morning. The Russian mob had found a way to her poker table two years ago, and she is charged, along with dozens of others, with ties to organized crime.

As the film follows Bloom and the trial in the present day, the details of her past poker empire are revealed in flashback, with the character narrating as if telling a story. Indeed, the implication is that she is recounting everything she has ever done to her lawyer (Idris Elba) in an attempt to convince him that despite any number of crimes she has committed, she never knowingly or willfully aided the Russian mob.

Chastain plays Bloom brilliantly. With the tabloids dubbing her “the Poker Princess,” Chastain captures the essence of a woman reckoning with the persona created for her and the persona she tried to build.

As for Elba, he deftly plays Bloom’s lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, who, though initially skeptical of Bloom’s sincerity, becomes one of her only advocates in the increasingly sensationalized trial. Chastain and Elba are the heart of the film, and their performances are by far the most memorable component.

Yet, Jaffey is meant to echo Bloom’s father, a parallel that points to the film’s greater problem. Criticism of Sorkin’s writing of women is not new, and “Molly’s Game” misses the mark again. Molly is a powerful woman — in a man’s world. The story positions her character constantly in relation to men.

When she makes the move from Los Angeles to New York City to start her own game from scratch, all the card dealers and waitstaff she enlists are women. They are smart, capable and, most importantly, sexy. The powerful women of “Molly’s Game” are always put-together, from the tip of their winged eyeliner to their perfectly tailored clothes. When Molly first enters the poker world, she notes that she wore her best dress, an ill-fitting outfit she got off the sales rack. When she starts to move up in the poker world, she tells us that the first thing she did was go out and buy a better dress, speaking to the fact that she is forming her new persona with regard to the male gaze.

Michael Gibson/Motion Picture Artwork/STX/Courtesy

In one of the film’s final scenes, as Molly is convinced that she is going to jail for a long time, a character tells her that she built her empire to prove that she had power over powerful men. Frustratingly, the great emotional revelation of the film is that Molly’s power is related to men.

This is typical of Sorkin’s shortsighted writing of women — it isn’t all bad, just slightly problematic. Do powerful women exist in a vacuum where a man’s influence never touches them? Obviously not, but suggesting everything Bloom built came from needing to prove something to men leaves a sour aftertaste. A woman’s actions and choices should be understood for what they are — a woman’s.

Chastain carries the film despite these failings. She demonstrates a keen understanding of the complexities of a woman in this no-win position, never swaying from portraying Bloom as a hard, aloof individual. She embodies that steeliness while still positioning Bloom as a character with whom the audience can sympathize.

Ultimately, just as the real-life Bloom presided over a chaotic overlapping of men’s egos, Chastain holds it all together despite the film’s weaker points.

“Molly’s Game” is currently playing at AMC Bay Street 16.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].