In the electrifying Molly’s Game, Jessica Chastain almost never raises her voice. She speaks with a calm and clarity that pull you in, conveying intimacy and authority in the same breath.

It’s a shrewd tactic that underscores the cool, guarded temperament of her real-life alter ego, Molly Bloom, a ferociously smart cookie who at 26 found herself running a high-stakes poker empire – a job she landed by safeguarding secrets, instilling trust and avoiding the kind of spotlight that writer-director Aaron Sorkin has now thrown upon her.

Chastain’s measured delivery may also be due to the fact that she has an ungodly amount of dialogue to plough through – did I mention it’s an Aaron Sorkin movie? – and an excess of volume would have almost certainly cost her in speed, coherence and stamina.

At 140 minutes, this movie qualifies as something of an endurance test, crammed to the rafters with voice-over narration, rapid-fire banter and some gratifyingly cogent poker commentary. But as endurance tests go, Molly’s Game is also an incorrigible, unapologetic blast – a dazzling rise-and-fall biopic that races forward, backward and sideways, propelled by long, windy gusts of grade-A Sorkinese.

‘Can we please sit down so I don’t have to stoop so much when talking to you.’

Drawn from Bloom’s 2014 memoir as well as episodes and experiences she didn’t include, the movie is a big, brash tale of American striving as well as an identity-blurring, chronology-fudging bit of storytelling business. It’s held in check, and held together, by its clear-eyed admiration of its protagonist and a genuine sense of commitment to her story.

This is no small thing for Sorkin, who, in his long and productive career of writing for film and television, from the testosterone-heavy offices of Sports Night to the dizzying techno-prophet narratives of The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, has never before given us a proper female lead. But he’s found a superb one in Bloom and a formidable, irresistible heroine in Chastain, and he’s returned the favour by allowing the character to tell her own story from start to finish.

If incessant voice-over is inherently uncinematic, then Molly’s Game might be the exception that proves the rule. It may not have the rich visual flourishes that a David Fincher or a Danny Boyle might have brought to the table, but Sorkin, in a solid directing debut, knows instinctively how to shuffle images, dialogue and music together for maximum narrative drive.

A terrific opening sequence finds Molly narrating a painful flashback to her days as a world-class skier, specifically the painful accident that dashed her Olympic dreams. It’s a sharp, teasing setup for a tale of even higher stakes and steeper falls from grace, set in motion by an early scene of Molly being arrested by the FBI for her alleged involvement in an illegal gambling racket.

‘Whatever happened to my career?’

If the movie emerges as a celebration of its heroine’s wits, it is also, ultimately, a defence of her scruples – something it achieves through a deft combination of Social Network structural gimmickry and Steve Jobs sentimental back story.

For the movie’s purposes, the two most important men in Molly’s life are her attorney, Charlie Jaffy (a superb Idris Elba), who both loathes and admires her refusal to sell out her client list for a possible reduced sentence, and her demanding, emotionally distant father (Kevin Costner), who materialises, in key flashbacks, to teach and torment his daughter anew.

The most questionable scene involves the fastidious unpacking of Molly’s daddy issues, sending Sorkin’s penchant for over-explanation into overdrive and potentially chipping away at the movie’s feminist bona fides. At the risk of mansplaining myself, I’m not sure that it does. Molly isn’t reduced, simplified or sentimentalised by her reckonings with the past, and the victory she wrests from the closing scenes is nothing if not fully earned.

She’s a winner in a movie that proves worthy of her. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Justin Chang


Molly’s Game

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd