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January 8, 2018

Molly’s Game

by Franz Patrick


Molly’s Game (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Great movies almost always contain one image or scene that summarizes the entire work so perfectly, it is etched onto the viewer’s mind long after the picture fades to black. Here, it is that of a woman dressed in at least two thousand dollars worth of clothing who is asked by a worker at a food stand whether she would like hotdog. She does, but once she reaches into her coat pocket, she is only able to find two dollars. The hotdog costs three bucks and so she must settle for a pretzel. This four- to five-second snapshot, which can be easily overlooked by less observant viewers, captures the story’s trajectory. “Molly’s Game” is highly efficient and supremely watchable, an electric directorial debut by Aaron Sorkin.

The plot involves a woman, once an Olympic-level skier, who creates a multimillion-dollar business of running poker games with nothing but her intelligence, ability to think on her feet, and willingness to take risks. The titular character is played by Jessica Chastain who sashays through Sorkin’s extremely tricky script like a most graceful international ballerina. Every emotion expressed, calculated silence, and subtle body language commands precision, matching that of the writer-director’s clinal approach in storytelling. It invites the audience to become involved in exploring the protagonist rather than relying on words we hear to tell us who she is, what she hopes to accomplish, and why she did the things she did to have been mired in a high-stakes federal investigation.

Dialogue-heavy and unafraid of technical jargon, the material ensures that it leaves enough room for viewers to make reasonable assumptions when it comes to what certain terms might mean. For example, when the screen shows different poker ranks, in addition to the carefully enunciated voiceover, lines, texts, and boxes are employed in order to highlight which part of the screen the audience should veer their attention toward in order to discern which player has the upper hand and those about to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While scenes that take place around the poker table are enjoyable and occasionally suspenseful, the focus is on the character who is raised to become a champion—before and after she is arrested for running an illicit gambling operation and having possible ties with the Russian mob. I am particularly impressed by how it captures the loneliness of a highly driven person, someone who hates to lose, to be regarded as weak or less than in any way. On many levels, I found myself relating with her curiosity and capability to obsess, as well as the willingness to push the envelope even further than it is supposed to go so long as it feels good. I think in a way, the material has an understanding of the less sunny side of passion, how a form of addiction takes control and consumes.

Intricate in just about every way but never inaccessible, “Molly’s Game” respects the intelligence and time of those willing to peer into its world of poker and addiction. Near the end of the picture, Molly comes across a shelf filled with green law books. Notice how she caresses the backbones of these texts and the manner by which she picks one up to read its contents. It presents an opportunity for us to imagine an alternate reality of Molly actually pursuing law school rather than delaying yet another year to make a quick buck.

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