Jessica Chastain’s winning play in “Molly’s Game”

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in “Molly’s Game,” which is now playing

I went into “Molly’s Game” knowing much nothing about it beyond the fact that it was written by directed by Aaron Sorkin, in his directorial debut, and that it starred Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba. In fact, for a few weeks before I had seen the film, I was mistakenly conflating it with the 2016 political drama “Miss Sloane,” which also starred Chastain as a mysterious and elusive woman. Going in blind to the film, though, seemed to be a godsend. In fact, “Molly’s Game” is a good movie that you should go and see and then come back and read the rest of this column.

Although a single 140-minute film, “Molly’s Game,” narratively, is really three films, three distinct films. There is a family drama about a girl who struggles to impress her father by striving towards skiing excellence at the Olympics; there is another film about a cocktail waitress who falls into the world of celebrity poker as an assistant then a runner of games; and there’s a third film about a former tabloid queen aiming for redemption after being arrested by the FBI. The movie opens with the first film, but quickly hands the reins over to third film but its central action focuses on the second. Films one and two are narrated by Molly from her memoirs, which were written before the events in the third film, for “Molly’s Game” is a true story. It’s arguable that no one of these three movies is compelling enough for a feature on its own but for all his issues, most of them due to a lack of self-awareness, Aaron Sorkin is a shrewd writer and he knows just the way to juggle the familiar beats of “Molly’s Game” to create a compelling whole. A key part of this juggling depends on the woman at the centre, for Sorkin as a director and a writer, asks much of Chastain. No film this year asks its protagonist to play so many odd, conflicting beats and Chastain does this excellently.

We first meet Molly Brown as a teenaged skier in the first ten minutes of the film. At face value, the film’s prologue is almost unnecessary except that it features the film’s strongest beats and some of the strongest moments in 2017 cinema. We properly meet the “current” Molly Brown twelve years later when she is a disgraced former poker princess, who ran underground games for millionaires and celebrities. The FBI arrests her in a chilling late night raid and she flies across country for her indictment and to hire a lawyer. She has no assets save for an alluring sharpness and an excellent, if provocative, dress sense. “You look like the Cinemax version of yourself,” her prospective lawyer comments early on in the film. The remark elicits an icy glare and this incident in the present propels us backward as the film shows us the ‘Making of Molly Brown.’

It’s not a particular inventive conceit, really. The idea of beginning in media res to see how we got to Z from A. Jonathan Romney, of Film Comment, shrewdly observes, for example, the way that the film plays in some moments as a female counterpart to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” another memoir adapted to screen film, but for “Molly’s Game” distinct lack of the ironic gaze. And that’s key; “Molly’s Game” is acerbic, dark, funny and sometimes even fun but it never depends on the sort of detached irony that makes Scorsese’s film so complex. Instead, it is the full forced sincerity which marks the film. It’s a hard note to play, especially when the film as a character study is peculiarly lacking in any sort of inward analysis of Molly. What betrays “Molly’s Game” deference to the (real) woman at its centre is its faint disinterest in interrogating the whys of her life beyond her staunchness. Still, it’s this outward looking way that marks the film’s effectiveness in other parts.

“Molly’s Game” rests on Jessica Chastain. She is in the majority of the film’s 140-minute running time, playing her character from 19 to 32. Since bursting on to the film scene seven years ago with the one-two-three-four-five punch of “The Help,” “Take Shelter,” “Tree of Life,” “Coriolanus” and “The Debt,” Chastain has been an interesting force for which projects she’s drawn to and away from. “Molly’s Game” continues a trend (from “Zero Dark Thirty,” the aforementioned “Miss Sloane,” and 2017’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”) of Chastain’s films eschewing the need for a romantic interest. “Molly’s Game” is almost virulently averse to attaching any sort of romantic interest to Molly and the closest thing to romantic longing only occurs when Molly stares longingly at the filial relationship between her lawyer and his daughter.

And then the final minutes of the film come. I’ll avoid specifics, but with about twelve minutes left on the screen, Molly goes to an ice rink for a final skate and a ghost from her past appears. It features the film’s very worst moments as Aaron Sorkin seems to immediately forget the movie he was making, the shrewd protofeminist tale of a woman making her own way. It seems so bizarre, it just sits limply there and excising it from the film will change no course of the narrative nor the end goals. And, yet, Chastain acts through it in a way that impresses despite the forces working against it.

Early in the film, Molly informs us that poker is not a game of chance but a game of skill. “Molly’s Game” shows its skill in certain moments but I feel luck is just as important for it. Sorkin’s lucky that Chastain is so in tune with this opaque character, telegraphing intelligence, anger, loathing and sadness through her eyes. It’s not the miles-a-minute dialogue that makes the film effective but every errant shot of Chastain’s eyes as she watches and listens. “Molly’s Game” is good. Jessica Chastain’s performance within it is great.

Molly’s Game is now playing at Caribbean Cinemas.

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