In the electrifying "Molly's Game," Jessica Chastain almost never raises her voice. She speaks with a calm and clarity that pulls 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 plow 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. 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 favor 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.
Flash back a few years to around 2003, when Molly puts her law-school plans on hold, leaves her Colorado hometown and moves to Los Angeles. There, she begins working as a cocktail waitress and then an assistant to a Hollywood insider, Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong, nice and sleazy), who soon has Molly running his weekly poker night out of the Cobra Club (a stand-in for the notorious Viper Room), complete with $10,000 buy-ins from a pool of hand-picked, high-profile names.
The details of how she hijacks the operation and gives it a stylish upgrade — a suite at the Four Seasons, multiple games per week, millions of dollars on the table — make "Molly's Game" the most absorbing poker movie in many a moon, told with breathtaking dexterity and an invaluable assist from a crowded supporting cast. The actors who plant themselves at Molly's table include Michael Cera (a vicious stand-in for Tobey Maguire), Brian d'Arcy James, Chris O'Dowd and Bill Camp, the last especially good as a seasoned player who bottoms out spectacularly in one of the movie's many cautionary anecdotes.
Even before a few Russian mobsters get in on the action, taking this loaded but legal enterprise in a more sordid direction, Molly has no shortage of greedy, overconfident men to cajole, spar with, counsel and occasionally turn the tables on. But for the most part, she remains on the sidelines, an alluring, unattainable enigma, and Chastain underplays beautifully, with a level of nuance that eclipses even her earlier take-no-prisoners performances in films like "Miss Sloane" and "Zero Dark Thirty."
Chastain draws us so deeply into Molly's lightning-speed thought processes that you can almost see her synapses firing, making "Molly's Game" not just a biographical portrait but a genuine thriller of the mind. The thrill comes from watching Molly figure everything out: She knows little about poker or high-stakes gambling when she's first getting started, but she has an appetite for research, an ease with technology and a knack for calculating an idea's untapped potential.
If the movie emerges as a celebration of its heroine's wits, it is also, ultimately, a defense 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 reluctant 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 tough, demanding, emotionally distant father (Kevin Costner), who materializes, 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 overexplanation 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 sentimentalized 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.
Rating: R, for language, drug content and some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: In general release