Friday 2 February 2018

Molly's Game (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), former Olympic-level skier turned over and shaker in the world of underground poker, has been indicted for suspected involvement with the Russian mafia. While she and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) navigate the indictment for a means to keep Molly out of prison, she recollects what led her to this point. Her athletic aspirations in her youth, her reluctant introduction into the world of off-the-books gambling, and her determined goal of proving her own worth in that world are all laid bare as she comes to terms with where she went wrong.

Chastain got a pretty good dry-run as far as delivering Sorkinese dialogue last year with Miss Sloane, and that practice pays off superbly as she lets every single razor-sharp syllable she’s given just roll off of her tongue, as if her character’s knack for sizing up her competition is something shared by the actor portraying her. Elba shows remarkable chemistry with Chastain, allowing for their lengthy dialogue scenes to have all the zeal needed to keep consistently engaging. The way he manages to portray a certain learned sense of what is happening around him through a rather underplayed on-screen presence is quite impressive too, considering this same actor has been largely known for cooler-than-ice performances in more fantastical works over the last several years.

Michael Cera as Player X manages to overcome both the goofy alias and his expectedly meek presence by showing a serious dark undercurrent to his place in the story as someone who plays poker not to win, not to have fun, but to destroy people. Bill Camp as one of the card sharks at Molly’s table works really well here, getting across a very definite realism through his performance while also handling his character’s breaking point quite nicely. Jeremy Strong as Molly’s initial connection to the underground gambling world Dean Keith hits the douchebag tone of the character just right, allowing for the sleaze to ring through without him becoming a pain to see on-screen for any length of time. Chris O’Dowd is a delight as the consistently drunk and impossibly lost-for-words pundit who ends up leading Molly to one of the film’s bigger story developments, and Brian d’Arcy James as ‘Bad Brad’ plays the world’s worst poker player with the precise pitiful demeanour that is called for.
However, of everyone here, one name stands out as the absolute highlight performance… and it’s from someone I don’t think anyone would have guessed: Kevin Costner as Molly’s father. Seriously. In a cast full of actors all on their A-game, Costner manages to outshine them all through a single brilliantly-delivered monologue that acts as the emotional centrepiece for the film; I legit got a bit choked up at this point, a reaction that I never would have expected out of someone as reliably bland and listless as Costner.

Stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, writer Aaron Sorkin is in full scriptsploitation mode on this one. I’d argue that this ends up making more of a case that he can film his own scripts, as opposed to being a fully-fledged filmmaker in his own right, but credit to him in that he has surrounded himself with very capable production hands. Composer Daniel Pemberton, echoing the kind of synchronicity he showed with Sorkin’s words back with Steve Jobs, crafts a pretty chill soundtrack that manages to accurately give the mood that this is something you would hear in the background during a pretty intense game of poker. Not a bad effort, considering the film itself has its doubts about sonic mood-setting with a neat quip about how a more typical playlist would just be Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler played on a loop.
He also has cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far From The Madding Crowd, The Girl On The Train, Fences) on hand, who gives the film some very tight framing and a quite sophisticated mood. And to round this off, we have the nimble editing work of Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham and Josh Schaeffer, constructing a pretty temporally disjointed narrative and make it feel like it’s as smooth as a rube’s butt on a bar stool. All of these players give some genuine effort into their roles within the production but, at the end of the day, it’s Aaron Sorkin’s scripting that takes the spotlight. As it should.

Sorkin’s writing style is so ubiquitous that it’s almost pointless to try and sum up what makes it work. It’s loaded with quippy dialogue speeding out of the actors’ mouths at lightning speeds, something made remarkably easy to keep up with through Sorkin’s apparent knack for directing actors. The guy got a 5-star performance out of Kevin bloody Costner; the man clearly knows what he’s doing. However, where the approach to dialogue becomes interesting is how it mainly manifests as a series of verbal jousts. Characters enter into a conversation with a specific goal in mind, and not only do they weave their way through the moments to reach that point but they also show a willingness to immediately rebut whatever worded obstacles get in their way. They basically play out like games of poker that don’t involve cards, which considering the rather psychological nature of your average game of poker makes perfect sense. To make things better, and to draw a clear difference between Sorkin and his legion of copycats, the dialogue never ends up bogged down in minor details or heavy jargon; everything is clear, crisp and to-the-point, allowing the progressively dramatic beats contained within to blossom.

With the rather wide scope of the story, covering everything from Molly’s beginning as a skier to placating for some truly powerful societal figures, it’s honestly surprising that this film feels as focused as it does. Part of that is down to the skilled editors at work to keep things running, but there’s also how sharply-defined Molly’s character and her arc is. It ends up recollecting quite a few character beats from Miss Sloane, with how it shows Molly’s ambitions and what is required of her to keep her head above water (and still secured to her neck, given her run-ins with mobsters later on in the story). 
However, rather than feeling like just a copy of what we’ve seen before, this is where the subject matter kicks in. Instead of the heady political machinations of Sloane, the story being told here is a lot more personal, defined by very insular threats and a definite sense that she is one bad hand away from making a terrible mistake. This even manages to override the story being told out-of-order, allowing the more impactful moments to hit just as hard even if we didn’t exactly know that something was about to occur. As a result, this showing of a woman with power and influence claiming a seat at the big boys’ table ends up resonating a lot more, aided by how the film both figuratively and literally delves into the character’s psychology to show what makes this fascinating woman’s brain tick.

All in all, Aaron Sorkin gives a rather impressive offering for his first turn in the director’s chair. The acting has everyone in top form, with Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and even Kevin Costner turning in terrific performances, the visuals show that Sorkin has a pretty definite idea on how to stage his own words, and the words themselves show Sorkin both doing what he does best and applying it to a story that absolutely benefits from his style. Knowing how lacklustre a lot of January’s releases were, this feels a bit like I’ve been living off of crackers for the last month, only to be greeted with a perfectly-roasted leg of lamb; this is a good sign that the initial mediocrity is passing and the genuine crop of the year can kick in.

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