Molly’s Game stars Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, the Olympic hopeful who delayed law school to run high-stakes and highly illegal celebrity poker games in LA and New York.

The movie is written by Aaron Sorkin, best known for TV shows The West Wing and The Newsroom and movies like The Social Network, Moneyball and A Few Good Men.

4 stars

If you love Aaron Sorkin’s writing, there is plenty to feast on here. The entire opening inner monologue is told with a pace and intensity that matches the increasing tension of what’s happening on the screen, and the punchline just before the title card tells us exactly who Molly is and sets the stage for how she approaches the many problems she is about to encounter.

If you hate Aaron Sorkin’s writing, there is likewise plenty to feast on here. People don’t really walk around talking to each other about the literary merits of The Crucible, do they? People don’t really casually mention that scientists know what the centre of the universe smells like, do they? It’s probably a safe bet these things only happen in Aaron Sorkin scripts and undergrad arts lounges.

While his writing has earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a boatload of Emmys, Molly’s Game marks Sorkin’s first time directing a feature film. The movie is two hours and 20 minutes, but Sorkin does a great job holding our attention throughout, using a tricky narrative structure to draw us further into the story.

The movie is told with three different timelines: Molly growing up, running the poker games, and defending herself in court. A lesser director might depend on something obvious to denote these shifts, such as a different hairstyle. Sorkin instead makes very effective use of the two most basic tools at a director’s disposal – sound and motion. For most of the transitions, the loud, flashy past cuts to quiet stillness and we realize immediately we have been brought back to the gravity of Molly’s current situation. It’s a confident and effective directorial choice.

Of course, so much of the reason Molly’s Game works so well is because of Molly. Jessica Chastain plays her as someone who is usually the smartest person in the room, someone who weighs and assesses risk and is smart enough to realize she’s made a bad decision as soon as she’s made it. You can read that in her face as much as in the dialogue.

Idris Elba plays Molly’s lawyer, and it’s too bad such a good actor is given so little to do. Kevin Costner plays Molly’s father, and they share a very Aaron Sorkin scene when he happens to show up at an outdoor skating rink (how would he know she was there when she just decided to go there herself?) and they have one of those deep conversations where they psychoanalyze each other. We’ve watched this type of scene in pretty much all of Aaron Sorkin’s previous stuff, but at least this time he has the courtesy to make one of the characters an actual psychoanalyst.

Molly’s Game is about gambling and crime and (eventually, somewhat) gangsters. It’s a good sign that as I was watching it, I was wondering if it would be as rewatchable as classic crime movies such as Goodfellas and Casino, which is a lot to ask. My guess is it’s a step below them, in the ranks of Donnie Brasco or Heat. Which is still damn good company.