Film review – Molly’s Game (Aaron Sorkin, 2018)

Aaron Sorkin is a name familiar to many film lovers. Having achieved fame with big screen screenplays for the likes of A Few Good Men, The Social Network and Moneyball, his knack of taking complex plots and working his magic to weave something not only palatable but positively gripping gave him unquestionable renown in the industry. He’s also transferred his skills to great television series, most notably with the multi-award-winning political drama The West Wing.

It was with some surprise that I discovered he would be making his directorial debut with underground gambling syndicate drama Molly’s Game. It wasn’t the content of the film that was surprising, more the fact he hadn’t yet directed a film. How could he have a career spanning four decades and not be tempted to direct any of his fantastic screenplays? And what tempted him to make this story his first?

MOLLY'S GAME

The titular character Molly is Molly Bloom, a former competitive skier until a freak accident curtailed her career [1]. Moving from snowy Colorado to sunny Los Angeles, she spent time as a cocktail waitress before getting involved with a group of highly famous and well-off Hollywood celebrities and millionaires (here given false names), including Player X (Michael Cera), Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd), Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) and Cole (Joe Keery) [2]. First she works as a hostess for a weekly high-stakes gambling match, profiting primarily from the large tips she receives for her efforts. Later, she decides to take control and run her own, putting more at risk but with higher rewards.

The film depicts the build up to a court case following Molly’s arrest, with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) untangling her situation and the story told through a series of flashbacks, including the importance of her relationship with her father Larry (Kevin Costner), a professional clinical psychologist.

As expected, the film has a sharp screenplay from Sorkin, who makes sure there’s enough detail to keep the story believable without bamboozling poker novices. The film hovers around topics of sexism and gender imbalance, which makes it a perfectly-timed release, handling the ugly issues as openly as they deserve to be.

Crucially, he proves to be as good at directing as he is at writing. There are some excellent actors involved here, so emotionally-charged scenes involving Chastain and Costner, or Chastain and Elba, are almost bound to deliver (they do). It is the scenes with the lesser-experienced actors that really prove he’s delivered here. Most notably, the role Charie’s daughter Stellar (Whitney Peak) plays in revealing the nature of his character and how he analyses Molly is spot on, with a real camaraderie between Elba and Peak. He is harsh on her, setting her additional homework and relentlessly questioning her thoughts to ensure she is bettering herself.

It is a clear mirroring of Molly’s relationship with her father and brings out one of the most prominent themes of the film: the father-daughter relationship and how that impacts on the daughter in later life.

MOLLY'S GAME

The emotional crux of the film hangs on the final scene involving Costner and Chastain, with Larry providing his daughter with “three years of psychological therapy sessions in three minutes”. It’s simply a joy to watch unravel – two actors emotionally lost in the characters they are playing, completely understanding of what the scene means to the characters and fully committed to what’s happening. For all the successes Sorkin has managed in the sexiness, seediness and hopelessness of the gambling ring, it is this scene that leaves the biggest impact.

Sorkin lost his father around Christmas 2016 and it is clear that this was dear to his heart when he created this picture. The fathers here operate with an otherworldly integrity to make sure their children achieve the best in life. If that’s how Sorkin remembers his father, and the success of good parenting is judged by the successes of their children, then on this evidence Sorkin has more than done his father justice.

Molly’s Game is an excellent film that delivers in every department.

[1] Note: In reality, this is one of very few pieces of artistic licensing Sorkin has employed in his career. There was no freak accident, simply a decision by Molly that she wanted a new challenge. (http://time.com/5073577/true-story-mollys-game/)

[2] It is rumoured that the real celebrities involved in the poker games include Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Macauley Culkin, Pete Sampras, Matt Damon, Michael Baxter, Marc Lasrey and Alec Gores. (https://nypost.com/2011/07/10/the-queen-of-secret-celeb-poker/)

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Film review – The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2016)

Watching The Revenant was an ordeal. Realistically gritty, putting the viewed in the centre of the action at all times and not afraid to show a bit of gore, that I felt so uncomfortable was inevitably a deliberate choice and will be one of the reasons it inevitably wins big at the awards ceremonies this year.

The story is set in 1823 in Louisiana Purchase, which the modern world now knows as North and South Dakota. It opens with a good old-fashioned Western movie standoff: the hunters are in the woods stockpiling pelts when they are ambushed by a group of Arikara Native Americans. The scene is one of the grittiest and most brutal opening battle sequences since Saving Private Ryan. People from both sides are blown up, arrows pierce any and every body part and nothing is watered down or censored.

The hunters are led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), whilst the team includes hostile John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the experienced Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hostility is felt between Fitzgerald and Glass; the former has been partially scalped by Native Americans and the latter has a son, Hawk, from his relationship with a native.

revenant screenshot

Come on guys. He’s done enough for the award this year.

The most famous scene from the film, in which Glass is brutally attacked by a female bear as he tried to hunt her cubs, is almost betrayed by a lack of convincing CGI. Fortunately if you believe in it enough, DiCaprio saves the day with a wholly convincing portrayal of a man desperately fighting for his life. It’s really difficult to watch but strangely mesmerizing, every grimace making you want to turn away and look closer in equal parts.

Tom Hardy is completely unlikeable as John Fitzgerald, just as he should be. There is literally nothing good about his character and it’s another huge achievement in Hardy’s young career.

As the final shot plays out, DiCaprio looks straight down the barrel of the lens and into our eyes. In the film, Glass is showing a whole range of spoilery emotions. In the real world, it felt like DiCaprio was saying to us “I’ve been attacked by a bear, had valleys dug into my back, been left for dead, thrown off a cliff, almost drowned, shot at, climbed inside a dead horse, eaten raw meat, learned the native Arikara language and almost frozen to death… so can I have an Oscar this year please?” I don’t think anyone who sees this could deny him of it. Not this time around.

The Revenant is on general release now.