In the middle of a legal trial that looks to be careening off track, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) takes a walk through Central Park to let off steam. Taking up a bench alongside a skating rink, her estranged father Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) finds her to dole out a series of truth bombs that he professes should substitute for a lifetime of therapy. Out of context, even as I’m highlighting what could be the scene of the entire picture, it sounds contrived. Trust me that’s not the case. Chastain’s titular Molly Bloom, against all prompts and gentle coercion, refuses to spill the beans on the specifics of her clientele because it’s against her values. In another scene by a lake in an Oscar winning film twenty years earlier, “Good Will Hunting,” was the last time I can remember a scene so directly revealing about the leading characters inner workings.
After a career ending injury destroys Molly Bloom’s (Chastain) pursuit to become an Olympic skier, she moves to L.A and is unwittingly drawn into the world of high stakes poker. With a competitive mindset and immeasurable will, Bloom quickly becomes the matriarch of America’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Due to her clientele, Bloom attracts the attention of the FBI.
Bloom (Chastain) was groomed to be a competitor. Her father Larry (Costner) is that kind of obsessive sporting parent that demanded perfection in such a relentless way that he spawned multiple Olympic level offspring. In the case of Molly his methods positioned him as the chief antagonist for her to thwart (in her case succeeding in ascending to Olympic glory). After her injury, Molly detaches completely from that past, deciding to take a job working for the pig-headed Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), whose dodgy poker game immediately begins to benefit from her exacting organisation and relationship building.
Chastain plays Molly with a grace and toughness. From her unassuming position as a secretarial figure, she’s able to wield her charm and influence to induce a calm over the largely degenerate male contingent. She’s complex, and Chastain is great at balancing the character leaning into the expectations of how she should look and conduct herself as the head of this game, and present an air of stability over the litany of substances fuelling her life by night, and masking the unfathomable stakes that she accepts as facilitator of these games.
Chastain’s portrayal of Molly is characterised by her composure under the pressure of any situation. When confronted with lawyer Charlie Jaffey’s (Idris Elba) forthright accusations of withholding information, Player X’s (Michael Cera) high stakes betting and higher stakes illegal sponsoring of other players at the table, and the prospect of being psycho-analysed by her father (without asking); she remains emotionally stable and aesthetically immaculate. Elba, despite the distracting accent, delivers a solid, blustery performance as Jaffey. You can almost tell that he signed on for a chance to wield Sorkin’s meaty monologue; especially when he gets a monologue that is reminiscent of Pacino’s plea for justice in “The Insider.” Cera is a surprise packet as this outward foppish party boy with a vindictive streak. Despite very little screen time, Costner brings another damaged dad to the screen that has a profound impact on his child, for better and worse in equal measure.
“Molly’s Game” suffers from a distinct lack of style to compliment the focus and bristling snap of Sorkin’s writing. Compare it to something like Danny Boyle’s perfectly attuned pacing, framing and collage textures in “Steve Jobs” (written by Sorkin) and the difference is glaring. Despite the restricted locations, the volume of dialogue and the limited flashbacks, Boyle enhances and amplifies Sorkin’s affinity with high functioning people whose mouths can keep up with the pace of their firing synapses. Sorkin’s lack of staging, composition and working to heighten performance and mood with camera movement benefits from giving precise dialogue to accomplished performers in beautifully designed spaces thanks to production design by David Wasco, set decoration by Patricia Larman and costume design by Susan Lyall.
“Molly’s Game” is a stranger than fiction story that’s hamstrung by the artifice of Sorkin’s formal craft; and there’s no doubt that it’s the lesser Jessica. “Miss Sloane is a fictional political thriller told with dynamism and craft. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of Washington D.C’s most sought-after lobbyists. When a boutique firm seeks out her services to campaign against Gun Lobby and their bottomless wells of money, she does something unexpected, and agrees to take up the fight. With impossible odds and powerful enemies Miss Sloane must ride wave after wave of threats to her livelihood and her friends.
Writer Jonathan Perera relishes presenting a character that’s suddenly and covertly developed a conscience, in a career and a profession where doing such a thing is so rare. Perera’s script is structured with a precision that you relish; beginning with Miss Sloane being forced to defend her campaign methods to a senatorial committee. The wonderful John Lithgow plays Senator Ronald M. Sperling, Miss Sloane’s chief interrogator. While you’re engrossed in Miss Sloane’s latest cause, seasoned director John Madden (“The Debt”, “Proof”, “Shakespeare in Love”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) uses his full storytelling toolkit to deftly keep you scrambling for sure footing. There’s a sleight of hand in the pacing and editing by Alexander Berner (“Cloud Atlas”) that defies the certainty of the noir structure (we’ve taken a glimpse at Sloane answering for her questionable methods in the beginning stages of the film).
In support is Mark Strong as Rodlfo Schmidt, Sloane’s new employer that’s riding the shock waves of her presence in his modest company. Alison Pill (a fellow Soerkin veteran from “Newsroom”) plays Jane Molloy, a Sloane protege that feels like the titanic opposition is forcing her usually impervious mentor to buckle. Gug Mbatha-Raw plays Esme Manucharian, a women ensnared in the spin cycle between conflicting lobbyists. Mbatha-Raw emotionally restores balance in the film and forces Chastain’s Sloane to engage on a human level. Finally, the consistently golden Michael Stuhlbarg relishes the opportunity to confront his former employee head-on; his familiarity with Sloane’s methods give a smug self-confidence in every dalliance.
“Miss Sloane” is a film and a character that isn’t just one step ahead of you, it’s lapping you around the running track like Captain America at the beginning of “The Winter Soldier” (there’s a scene on the cutting room floor which features Chastain running around a track saying “on your left” to everyone that she streams past*) Perera’s script is filled with genuine surprises, rare for the well-worn territory of a ‘white collar’ thriller. Chastain is at her ferocious best and it’s such a pleasure to take a thrill ride and to be genuinely surprised.
“Molly’s Game” (2017) – ★★½
“Miss Sloane” (2016) – ★★★★
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.