Aaron Sorkin’s reputation as a writer is at this point legendary.  The man behind television’s The West Wing, and screenplays such as The Social Network, Steve Jobs, A Few Good Men, and Moneyball is now dipping his toes into the water of directing with his new film, Molly’s Game.  In addition to directing, he is also the screenwriter, adapting the story from the book by Molly Bloom, the protagonist of the story.  What he has produced is a compelling story, anchored by a fantastic cast, allowing his directorial debut to rise to the level he has been known for with his writing.

Jessica Chastain (The Zookeeper’s Wife, Interstellar, The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty) stars as Molly Bloom.  An ex-olympic skier, she finds herself looking to earn some money before going to law school.  She has her whole life mapped out for herself until she takes a part time job working in an office.  Her boss eventually introduces her to his weekly high stakes poker game that he hosts with the mysterious Player X (Michael Cera-Arrested Development) who, in real life, is a well-known actor, but who was not named by Molly when she is indicted by the FBI, hence the generic name of “Player X”.  Player X is the key to the game as he is the one who is connected to all of the big money players.  He doesn’t want to simply find people to beat when he recruits players.  He wants to “ruin lives”.

As the games go on, Molly finds herself making huge amounts of tips, paying her well behind the meager weekly salary she is paid in her part time day job.  Soon, law school is being delayed indefinitely as Molly finds herself being fired from both her day job and the poker game.  Having learned all of the tricks to staking such a game, she quickly lures Player X to her game, and with him all of the big money.  She is soon running the largest game in town.  When complications between her and Player X emerge, she finds herself leaving Los Angeles for New York where her games grow even larger, eventually attracting even more attention from the FBI, and coincidently, the Russian mob.

The film is set in the present as she is in search of a strong attorney, whom she finds in Charlie Jaffey, played wonderfully by Idris Elba (Thor: Ragnarok, The Dark Tower, The Jungle Book).  By this point, Molly is known for being a tabloid sensation, thanks in large part to her book where she named 4 celebrities that took part in her game, but not the really big players.  Because of this pseudo-celebrity status, most attorney’s are dismissing her case, but Jaffey sees something deeper and begins to research her case.  Flashbacks lead us through her story, including the struggles she has trying to live up to the impossible standards set by her psychologist father Larry Bloom.  Larry is played by Kevin Costner (Hidden Figures, McFarland U.S.A., Man of Steel),who gives a strong multi-layered performance as the hard-to-please father, and who serves as Molly’s never-say-quit coach.  We see that Molly’s reasons for being uncooperative with the FBI have deeper motives than what is being disclosed on the surface.

The film is tightly executed with a strong pace and a surprising amount of humor that keeps the narrative balanced.  Sorkin never allows things to become to self-serving in its seriousness, and provides enough tension that helps allow for a few moments of jarring violence to enter the story that keeps the stakes in Molly’s life raised high, even as we watch her try to pretend like everything is fine, and that she is in complete control of everything, despite the opposite being true.

Chastain continues to give strong performance after strong performance, making her one of the most consistently  good actresses in the industry today.  She has seen herself being given a larger platform to speak on behalf of women in the industry and has handled that role, even when she is chastised for any misstep, with much grace and humility.  She has a production company where she seeks to find projects for all sorts of voices at every level in the industry, especially in areas where women are traditionally under-represented, such as writers and directors.  For herself, this means choosing roles for herself that demonstrate the complexity of character, moral ambiguity, who are strong under pressure, and the plurality of emotions that typically embody some of the more developed characters seen in roles for men.

She is not a woman who typically accepts being simply “the love interest”, or the “damsel in distress” roles that exist still in far too many films.  As a result, you can always count on Mrs. Chastain to play complicated, and interesting, characters, and Molly’s Game is no exception.  Just in the last year, if you were to see Molly’s Game, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and Miss Sloan, you’d see immediately what I’m saying.  Aaron Sorkin was wise to have cast her as Molly, as she makes it where you can see no one else in this role.  Her on-screen chemistry with Idris Elba is great and they play off of each other well.

Sorkin, as a first time director, does much well.  He chooses good angles to bring the audience inside the underground world of high-stakes poker and illegal gambling.  He also has done a good job of helping the story that he wrote on paper come alive on screen.  Usually, we have seen other directors do that with his screenplays, but it feels more authentic here, as he clearly is the best person to bring his own words to life, much in the same way that Taylor Sheridan did this year when he directed Wind River, after being a strong writer for projects like Sicario and Hell or High Water.  Sorkin has some things to learn, but will only get better the more he does it.  For a first time project, however, Molly’s Game doesn’t show many signs that he isn’t a veteran director.

Molly’s Game is a strong, fun, fast, and serious look at one woman’s journey from all-American athlete and scholar to connected criminal and tabloid fodder who through it all fought to keep the only thing she still possessed, her own integrity. The film opens in limited markets on Christmas Day before opening wide in early January.