History has provided us with a lot of excellent poker films. Older projects like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) established the genre. The ’90s brought us the likes of Maverick (based on the classic television show) and Rounders. And in the 2000s, movies like Ocean’s 11 and Casino Royale successfully infused other genres with poker drama.
This fall’s release of The Card Counter, however, has us thinking about what the best recent poker film has been. And the one that comes to mind as the most effective since Casino Royale, if not Rounders, is the 2017 biopic Molly’s Game.
Molly’s Game was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin –– one of Hollywood’s most celebrated screenwriters. Sorkin’s previous work includes The West Wing (1999-2006), a highly acclaimed drama on the inner workings of the White House, as well as more recently 2020’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, a historical drama focusing on a group of Vietnam War protestors. But Molly’s Game was the first project that the acclaimed scribe both wrote and directed.
True to form, Sorkin kept Molly’s Game quite narration-heavy. And it’s Sorkin’s trademark dialogue that ultimately makes this film a joy to watch.
The film revolves around the true story of former aspiring Olympian Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), whose athletic career was brought to an abrupt end after she sustained a serious injury during a competition. Distraught, Molly abandons ideas of attending law school and moves to Los Angeles, where she meets minor real estate developer Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) and ends up waitressing at his underground poker bar, The Cobra Lounge.
There, she rubs shoulders with the rich and famous, including Player X (Michael Cera), a stand-in for famous real-life Hollywood poker players like Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck. Eventually, she learns how to run poker games on her own.
Consequently, Molly begins building her own underground poker empire. And when she eventually gets tangled up with the mafia, New York lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) steps in.
Renowned casting director Francine Maisler, who previously worked on The Revenant (2015) and Marriage Story (2019), does a fantastic job matching Sorkin’s demanding script. Chastain in particular brings her skill for playing powerful and compelling women to the table, illustrating Molly’s real-life toughness and durability under pressure. It’s arguably the best performance Chastain has ever given.
Cera, on the other hand, is playing less to type. The actor usually plays shy and introverted characters, like Scott Pilgrim in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim VS the World. In Molly’s Game, however, he shows what an interesting actor he is, showcasing some versatility and playing the film’s first real antagonist. Cera’s Player X is boiling with a subtle hostility that’s perfectly off-putting.
What critics praise the most, however, is the chemistry between Bloom and Jaffey, which provided the perfect avenue for Sorkin to display his dialogue-crafting prowess. The strong-willed nature of both characters, flawlessly executed by Chastain and Elba, resulted in fiery exchanges that undoubtedly make any scene with the both of them the most exciting parts of the film.
However, Sorkin never really tries to build on the innate suspense of high-stakes poker games or tense interactions with the mafia and the law. And even with the heavy-handed narration, the viewer never gets real insight into Molly’s personal feelings or motivations.
Despite this, Sorkin never diverts unnecessary attention to Molly’s sexuality and femininity. Instead, he maintains laser-focus on Molly’s growth, which interestingly enough mirrors the journey one goes through to become a pro poker player. Aspiring pros in the real world learn to assess themselves and learn new lessons constantly. They work long and strange hours, and they take bold risks. Molly Bloom displays similar attributes and tendencies in this film, and as we take the journey with her we’re left with no doubt of her growing competency in the poker arena. She may not play the tables herself, but she is every bit the pro.
Ultimately, Molly’s Game delivers a powerful tale about a woman surviving in an overwhelmingly male-dominated world. It gave us both the most interesting character and the most compelling poker scenes we’d seen in a poker film in well over a decade. It’s no wonder the film scored strong reviews among critics and fans alike.
And for our money –– with due respect to The Card Counter –– it’s quite clearly the best recent poker film.