I love gangster movies as much as the next person but they are old hat. Yes, The Godfather and Scarface are the pinnacles of cinema but any time a movie tries to be them, it never really works. Just take Ben Affleck’s Live By Night for instance. It is a lovely looking movie and it’s obviously had a lot of work put in it but because the gangster genre has been played, it wasn’t as good as it could have been. It has a lot of other problems other than that though. However you can do gangster movies in a different way that don’t really involve gangsters at all. And that’s what Molly’s Game is.
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) is trying to get a normal career after she fails to qualify for the Winter Olympics. She ends up running a poker night and through her wit, she becomes the Poker Princess and makes thousands a day on running games. However she gets arrested and fails jail when the police believe that she’s been taking rakes and getting involved in the Russian mob.
This movie is directed by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and if you know his films and TV shows you know that comes with a certain style. And it’s fair to say it’s a divisive style as it can be quite irritating at times. I’m happy to say in this movie it really works and drives the movie. This could be a dry movie, it’s about poker which can be very boring. Have you ever seen a live poker tournament on the TV? For all the money at stake, it is surprisingly dull to watch. And then there’s all the legal stuff which can be incredibly tiresome to watch if not handled carefully by the director. But Sorkin’s quickfire style and every character having a brilliant one liner on hand really makes the movie fly by in this case. It needs to as well, it clocks in at an impressive two and half hours. That’s longer than most poker games last. I think. I’m usually broke by then.
What Sorkin does best is give you the rush of poker and running these games. Again, poker could be really boring to watch if handled badly. But this movie plunges you right into the table. It feels like you are right there in the table in the room full of smoke and hoping that your lying is far better than all the other liars. With it’s quickfire editing, you get the same adrenaline rush as the players as they hope they get to go home with some cash and not end up broke. I admit I am a bit of a gambler, though this is usually a quid on an accumulator which goes badly within ten minutes, but poker doesn’t really appeal to me. However even though the movie makes it clear how much money you can lose in this game, it also gives you great reasons as to why so many want to lose money in this way.
Sorkin’s writing also gives Chastain a brilliant character to work with. Molly Bloom is a force of nature and you can’t help but fall in love with her. Like all the best Sorkin characters, she always has a great line up her sleeve, though as said before that is most of them, and it’s great fun just to watch her at work. To watch her manipulate all the men in her life to basically do her bidding, and have her tell us in eloquent narration exactly what she is doing, is delightful to watch and it’s definitely the highlight of the film. She has such a swagger in the poker parts of the movie and you can easily see why she rose to the top. But she is able to break down her character into the neuroses that lie beneath with an excellent scene with her dad Larry (Kevin Costner, The Postman) showing that brilliantly. Jessica Chastain is one of the best actors out there today and this is another fantastic film to put on her CV.
The poker can be a problem though. I don’t think you need to be a poker don to understand the movie but you need to know far more than I do to completely get it. They will just use terms like flops and rivers with very little explanation and it left me lost. Well, there is actually an explanation but it goes so quick, this is Sorkin after all, you know less about poker when it finishes compared to when it started. Again, this is not crucial to know about to enjoy the movie but it does detract from one well-done but ultimately mystifying scene where a typically bad player somehow outwits a master at the table. It was meant to be amazing but I was just lost.
But even with that, this movie is a modern gangster film for me. While it doesn’t have someone bathing in cocaine or a horse head in a bed, it does have all the tropes that made those movies great. It has a regular person using wits, connections and a bit of deceivery to make an empire that doesn’t seem like it will be toppled. But then the lead character gets cocky, overplays her hand and it ends up falling apart in front of her. It’s been done a million times before but shifting it from gangsters to poker players makes it feel fresh again. And because the gangster tropes have been played out, simply shifting them to another environment makes it feel more 21st century and of our age. This is how you update old tropes.
I think it’s clear that I love Molly’s Game. It’s a gangster movie for the 21st century. Instead of shady dealings in a back room, it’s shady dealings over a poker table and it works so well. Jessica Chastain puts in another brilliant performance but that’s barely news at this stage because she does that in every movie. It has the trademark Sorkin style but without the overbearingness which has caused problems in some of his other movies. It’s just a slick, modern version of a gangster movie and I hope that this is where the genre continues to go in future.