“This woman does not belong in a RICO indictment. She belongs on a box of Wheaties.” Attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) gives a rousing speech near the end of Molly’s Game, one where he defends his client, Molly (Jessica Chastain), against a pair of government prosecutors. They want her to give up information on the men who played in her high stakes poker games. Charlie, it turns out, is borrowing his defense from his daughter Stella (Whitney Peak), who sees in Molly a role model and a hero.
The two white men in the room look vaguely embarrassed by the speech, which extols Molly’s honor and integrity, as it also lists the many crimes committed by the men she’s protecting by not naming them. Her game, Molly makes clear a few times — in persistent, over-explanatory voiceover — is an ostensibly temporary career choice, a means to make money and feel significant, running what she calls “the most exclusive glamorous and decadent man cave.”
Aaron Sorkin’s movie (based on the real Molly Bloom’s memoir) insists on this plausible and predictable rationale, going so far as to bring in her dad (Kevin Costner), a psychologist and Molly’s onerous freestyle ski coach back when she was an Olympic hopeful to articulate it. The damage he does is made visible and literal in the film’s opening moments, when Molly wrecks during a qualifying run and winds up bloody-faced and broken on the slope, the crowd around her screaming at the sight. Still, this being a Sorkin movie, dad actually shows up — as if in a dream — to spell out the damage, declaring that Molly is not only seeking “to control powerful men” (like him), but also has daughter baggage based on his bad behavior toward her, including his favoring her younger brothers. Her father was and is powerful, and he’s a “dick”, too, as teenaged Molly (Samantha Isler) suggests
All the overt gender politics makes Molly’s Game seem like a timely film. For most of its running time, Molly is grappling with exactly these sorts of men, wasting time and money, bullying her and each other, lying to their wives and kids, playing games that are theirs and not hers at all. Her voiceover helps you feel like she’s aware of what’s what, even when that awareness doesn’t make for basically healthy or even very intelligent choices. She looks after losers, and puts up with her “nitwit” boss, Dean (Jeremy Strong), who introduces her to running games (his). She also enters into a contest for control with an especially obnoxious player she calls X (Michael Cera).
Just what control either might win isn’t quite clear. It may be some generic and gendered and forever cultured notion, it may be a more specific abstraction, having to do with the capacity to be dominant or aggressive. None of these is especially appealing, except in the world of movies and money, celebrity and renown. In the current moment, set in a world framed by Molly’s articulate perspective, the stakes seem antiquated. This much is underlined when Molly shares a few moments with Stella, who appears at her father’s office reading homework she says has been “assigned” by her dad. Certainly, Molly sees herself in the child striving to please her father, but she also finds herself — or comes to a new understanding of herself — in that homework assignment.
Stella’s reading The Crucible. Molly’s first impulse is to debunk Arthur Miller’s version of the story, to report that in fact, no women were burned as witches, but instead “hanged or drowned or crushed with heavy rocks”. Molly’s correction is full of complications: both the myths and the truths are duly horrifying, but Molly speaks to the process of the storytelling — by Miller, by those recording and revising 17th-century events, by countless high school English teachers — as this process reveals its own daunting framework. Storytellers recall and repeat, alter and omit. They set terms, create expectations, and shape identities. Storytellers are artists, fabricators, and cultural arbitrators. They run games.
The film shows how games are run differently by men and by Molly (the one woman who is running a game here). And it illustrates the damage done by these men. With this focus, Molly’s Game mostly keeps Molly and Stella’s relationship off-screen: while Charlie reveals (and learns from) Stella’s admiration of Molly, they appear together only a couple of times. And yet theirs is the relationship that matters most, the one that tells a story of identities beyond conventional scripting, beyond standard definitions of power and control.
When Molly confesses her reason for not playing the men’s game — the prosecutors’ game or the endless poker game, at long last — she declares the value of her name, “the only one I’ll ever have.” In recognizing that value, in seeing herself as Stella sees her, Molly finds another story. If Molly’s Game doesn’t quite highlight that story, if it frames her revelations in the stories told by her lawyer and her father, at least it acknowledges that it can.