Film Review: Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Molly’s Game’ presents a high-stakes, character-driven story with plenty of pay-offs.

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I don’t know much about poker — I have to be retaught it every time I try to play — but what I do know is that there are a lot of chips, dollars and high stakes involved. That last factor takes on a greater meaning in Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game,” based on the true story of Molly Bloom, a former olympic skier turned poker entrepreneur. Sorkin, best known for his award-winning screenplays, writes and makes his directorial debut with this film, which stars Jessica Chastain as Molly who, after running some of the most exclusive, high stakes poker games that included celebrities, athletes and members of the Russian mob, is arrested by the FBI and is faced with a potential prison sentence.

The film took a few scenes to hook me, easing me into Molly’s world piece by piece, but once the stakes of her situation become clear, I found myself riveted by how the various plot points unfold (or fold, if we’re talking about the actual poker games). Sorkin pens one of the best written films I’ve seen in awhile; his dialogue is filled with emotion, wit and surprising moments of humor that keep the film from spiraling into total gloom, which could have easily happened as we see Molly begin to lose everything she built for herself within this underground poker empire. Sometimes that humor and levity undercuts the seriousness of the scenes, particularly in a heated exchange between Molly and her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) toward the end of the film, but that doesn’t detract too much from the overall flow of the narrative.

“Molly’s Game” is primarily a character-driven story, and in that respect, Chastain’s performance  proves once again why she is one of the best actors in the game; she portrays Molly with a balance of confidence and vulnerability, toggling between the tabloid-dubbed “Poker Princess” that the world sees her as and the human she is underneath. She slowly peels back Molly’s layers to uncover a character who has dealt with so much personal loss in pursuing her goals, from her skiing career to her poker business and the consequences she faces for her actions. I don’t know that Chastain will be nominated for an Oscar this year due to the level of competition in that category, but her performance is certainly worthy of recognition.

Elba also shines as Jaffey — a supporting role that no one seems to be talking about. His and Chastain’s chemistry within their lawyer-client relationship is fantastic; some of the most riveting scenes in the film occur when Molly and Jaffey are arguing about how Molly should handle her situation. Sorkin’s dialogue, combined with perfect timing from both actors, creates snappy exchanges between the two characters that deepens our understanding of Molly, and why Jaffey chose to help her. As a side note, Michael Cera and Joe Keery (Steve Harrington from “Stranger Things”!) are also in this movie, which brought a smile to my face simply because these actors were on screen.

In terms of editing, the story is structured in a non-linear fashion, beginning with Molly’s time as an olympic skier and bouncing back and forth between the present, where Molly grapples with her court case, and the past, where Molly rises as the “Poker Princess,” running games in Las Angeles, then New York. The editing choices are interesting, especially as it relates to these time jumps; the past is filled with fast cuts to mirror the fast-paced environment of poker, with the present moments giving me time to catch my breath from the tense situation Molly gets herself into. I do have nitpicks with some of the individual cuts made in the film as it relates to where the characters are positioned in the frame — the film lists three editors, so that may be part of the problem — but on the whole, this non-linear pattern proves largely effective in sustaining suspense. The use of color also emphasizes the contrast between Molly’s lively past and her uncertain present; I would have to see the movie again to examine this more closely, but it appears that the flashback scenes use a warmer color palette filled with red hues when Molly runs the poker games, while the present scenes use cooler colors like blue and grey after Molly’s arrest.

I didn’t have any expectations going into “Molly’s Game,” but the film was a pleasant surprise that, at times, made me forget I was watching a movie because I was sucked into the story. Filled with exceptional dialogue and performances, Sorkin’s directorial debut proves to be a gamble that paid off.

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