Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) has a story to tell, but first let her inform you of her early years where she was a skier competing at championship level. She had been trained by her psychologist father Larry (Kevin Costner) who drove his three kids on to win at all costs, though he was frequently dismayed at how Molly would stand up to him; nevertheless, she put the training in and despite a curvature of the spine that developed and had to be fixed with metal bolts, she went on to be very successful - until the day she was competing and hit a small stick that in a million to one chance sent her flying through the air and landing injured. So what's a girl to do to get on in this world?
This man's world, you could also put it, as Molly is a woman who it could be regarded exploits men, very rich men, for her own gain throughout her tale until the time comes to pay the piper, or be arrested by the FBI as it's otherwise depicted here. Her account was well known in poker playing circles, and she did pen a bestselling book, though it mostly sold well in the United States, meaning her crimes would not be of much interest outside of poker-playing Americans, of which there are a fair few, but internationally writer and director Aaron Sorkin had something of an uphill climb to get audiences interested in what was, on the face of it, a self-serving yarn of beating the system.
Of course, Bloom didn't so much beat the system as coast on her intelligence and people skills for a while until she was able to negotiate with the system, and that much was clear as Sorkin finally applied himself to directing for the first time, as opposed to the screenwriter alone, his usual role. As this was a film needing a strong, capable actress in the lead, Chastain must have been the top of the studio's list to headline, and lucky for them she agreed, not least because she could pass for a twentysomething as well as someone closer to Bloom's age when this was all wrapped up. But it was her keen skills to, let's face it, making the barrage of information sound important that sold it.
Sorkin scripts you would expect to be pretty talky, but here he excelled himself with barely a pause for breath throughout a running time well over two hours. Taking the Martin Scorsese approach to crime biopics, as seen in Goodfellas to The Wolf of Wall Street, the narrator was the most important character here, handy when she was also Chastain playing Molly, and if there was not so much of the classic hits on the soundtrack, this was made up for with the star conveying the meaning of what could, for the layman in poker or law, be confounding: although you may not be able to tell someone precisely what it was about after you had watched it, while it was unfolding you felt as if you were smart enough to pick your way through what was a complex morass of card jargon and legal loopholes and conditions, courtesy of lawyer Idris Elba (making the most of big speeches).
Chastain was so accomplished that many would have felt they could have watched this as a filmed play, a one-woman show where she would expound on the ins and outs of the Molly Bloom case, though what you would most likely take away from this was no matter how above board gambling claims to be, the threat of criminality was always going to be pressing on it. Molly's card games where she invites some extremely wealthy men to a hotel room for exchanging hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, all very classy and with attractive females on hand to serve drinks, are basically a way of fleecing the vulnerable, and the implication is, as the Michael Cera stand-in for a famous actor says, destroying lives can be as much the point of a high stakes poker game as it can be gathering the money you may or may not be able to afford. Sorkin made the mistake of overexplaining the motives, perhaps, but by the end you feel as if you have been given a lecture in human nature, and you have not liked whatever you took in. Music by Daniel Pemberton.