Very Hard to Kill

Molly's Game (2017)

Molly's Game (2017) | STX Films
STX Films

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I cried the first time I watched Molly’s Game; whenever I watch a movie, the odds are in favor of me crying. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, if I relate to its story, or if I like any of the characters. I’m an easy mark for movie magic—swelling music, emotive performances, expansive visuals, the impossible fantasy of a tidy ending—so I’ve cried more times over movies that I’ve forgotten or hated than I have about significant events in my own life. What I am embarrassed to admit is how I cried the first time I watched Molly’s Game, choking out loud sobs during the first scene, right after the first sentence of voice-over dialogue, and then sniffling for the next hour or so. 

The movie begins with young Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), the third-best women’s moguls skier in the United States, at the top of a course, bracing herself for an Olympic qualifying run. An older Molly, in voice over, describes a poll that asked, “What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports?” Answers range from losing a Game 7 to falling to a rival to placing fourth at the Olympics—meditations on the theme of not quite making it; all very poignant to me, a Wisconsin sports fan, and all ways of letting us know that this run will culminate in something far worse than any of those things. As older Molly keeps feeding us context, she clarifies that whatever awful thing happens will be particularly devastating because young Molly—as well as her coach and her heavily invested father, played by Kevin Costner—imagines the qualifier as a formality leading up to the real challenge. The question isn’t whether she’ll make it to the Olympics but whether she’ll medal once she’s there. 

But a frozen pine bough, scattered along the course for visibility, catches one of her skis at the exact right angle to make her lose control just as she’s about to clear a jump, sending her crashing and sliding into a cluster of spectators. It’s a fluke, and it’s intensified by a past fluke: her spine is held together with a morass of metal after it “exploded” for no clear reason when she was 12. All this narrated context—the past injury, the present confidence, the future plans—amplifies the tension of the moment, both by delaying the inevitable event and by giving it greater emotional depth. What results is a horrifying, gut-punch inversion of the joy of watching an athlete reach their borderline-inhuman peak of achievement, and it frames the movie with a very specific question: what happens when you come so close to accomplishing what you spent years of your life working toward and fail horribly, through no fault of your own?

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Molly's Game (2017) | STX Films

The rest of Molly’s Game never lives up to the promise of its first scene. After crashing out of the qualifiers, Molly moves to Los Angeles and stumbles into running a poker game for her day-job boss Dean (Jeremy Strong, in full Succession-pilot sicko mode). She pushes herself to learn everything she can about poker so she can bring Dean’s game to the next level, creating a runway to splinter off, poach players, and start her own game—which swiftly falls apart after a conflict with alpha/demon Player X (Michael Cera, as phenomenally douchey as Strong). Smarting from the loss, she moves to New York to start fresh with a new, optimized game, but she wades in over her head, grows dependent on drugs to keep up with the demands of her work, and inadvertently becomes entangled with organized crime. As everything escalates, one of her players rats on her to the FBI, forcing her to quit the business. Two years later, she’s arrested on federal charges related to her involvement with the Russian mob. She hires Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her, then incessantly annoys him with her staunch refusal to turn on her players to save herself. In the end, she pleads guilty, but receives a light sentence—escaping with minimal consequence and, more importantly, with her soul intact. 

Instead of taking us through this story from start to finish, Molly’s Game wanders from incident to incident, jumping between timelines in a way that forces us to pay attention but also precludes the possibility of marinating in any single moment deeply enough to return to the emotional intensity of its opening sequence. It’s the only movie I can think of in which a scene where I know precisely what’s about to happen is more thrilling than any of those that leave me with no idea what might happen next. While the later Big Emotional Moments suffer in comparison to the first, I doubt they’d stand up any better without it. Many of the supporting characters are stand-ins for ideas about power and risk shaded in with bizarre quirks, rather than recognizable humans with motivations and inner lives. Despite the deep bench of weirdos involved in each game, poker culture never feels tangible here.

In the hands of another lead actress, I think Molly would suffer from the not-fully-a-person problem almost all the supporting characters do. But Chastain—who tends to gravitate toward precise, driven characters—leverages her Type A energy to answer the question of what happens when that energy has nowhere to go, giving Molly’s fundamental aimlessness a depth and intentionality that’s easy to extrapolate to the rest of the movie’s tendency to meander. It’s hard to imagine Chastain having any personal knowledge of failure, but her performance is the only one I’ve ever seen that conveys the feeling of never realizing your potential. Both in-person and in voiceovers, she establishes the uncertainty around what Molly’s doing and why she’s doing it, her inability to grow roots in any place or thing, and the endless cycle of trying and failing to transpose a narrative arc onto a past and present that defy all the rules of linearity. 

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Molly's Game (2017) | STX Films

I don’t think it helped, on the ugly-crying front, that I watched the movie while in the process of accepting that my academic career was over. The last year of my PhD program coincided with the advent of MoviePass, and I spent at least two afternoons a week sobbing my way through a matinee I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to see. But I cried the hardest during Molly’s Game—on a Tuesday afternoon, alone, mercifully (although, to be clear, I’d cut off my own finger for the chance to safely cry in a packed theater right now, no matter how embarrassing the movie in question). 

I’d spent the 6 1/2 years leading up to that afternoon in grad school, and everyone around me assumed I was preparing for the tenure track. I was a good academic—good at figuring out what my professors and students wanted from me and then delivering it, good at clearing the hurdles of seminars and exams without psyching myself out, good at digesting information and then spitting out a coherent response. (In short, I excelled because I’m a highly skilled bullshitter.) But it made me unhappy in a way I couldn’t sustain, and early in my PhD program, I decided my academic career would be over once I defended my dissertation.

When that self-imposed deadline approached, I wavered. My job was miserable and precarious, but if I left, I’d have nothing to show for the work that had occupied my entire adult life, and I’d disappoint everyone who thought I was capable of achieving the statistically impossible feat of a tenure-track job. A not-insignificant part of my brain believed that falling short of expectations was a worse outcome than interminable depression and financial struggle. In the end, it wasn’t my decision to leave: I applied to the jobs I swore I wouldn’t, came close to getting them, didn’t, and couldn’t afford to keep trying. And, while I’d wanted an out for years, I had no idea what to do with myself once I got it. I’d never learned how to structure my life without the guardrails of institutional benchmarks and other people’s expectations to keep me in line.

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Molly's Game (2017) | STX Films

In the aftermath, I learned—and this might be the only thing I’ve learned; I’m the same aimless dumbass I was in that movie theater 2 1/2 years ago, I’ve just found peace with it now—that the structure of what other people want from you is no structure at all. The fellowships and publications and praise and good grades gave me a way to measure my worth (our animal brains love a reward system), but racking up those prizes required running an endless gauntlet of busy work and pointless sacrifice. My work was never enough; I could never marinate in the feeling of accomplishing one thing before succumbing to the pressure to move on the next four tasks; I could never meet everybody’s expectations, and I only cultivated chaos by trying. 

I’m not sure Molly’s Game learns that lesson, but it certainly demonstrates it. Though her abrasive personality and tendency to keep others at a distance don’t scream people-pleaser in a traditional sense, trying to be all things to all people proves to be Molly’s downfall. She would never have wandered into poker if her skiing career hadn’t come to an untimely end—but she ends up running games specifically because she takes an office job with Dean to cover up the money she makes at the lucrative bottle-service gig she’s ashamed to tell her parents about. And she only lands in the trouble she does because she attempts the impossible balance of constantly surpassing her own accomplishments while also never making anyone upset ever. 

At the same time, the movie itself struggles because it tries to be all things to all people. It’s a legal drama, a sports story, a crime caper, the rare fun biopic, a study of familial dysfunction, a parade of that guy from that things, and a throwback to the late ‘90s/early ‘00s mid-budget Sunday afternoon cable drama—all at once. It never fully hits the mark in any of those subgenres, nor does it hold up as a cohesive text against even the smallest amount of scrutiny. But, if you enjoy anywhere from one to seven of those types of movies, you’ll have a good enough time watching enough of the movie’s individual scenes—and, as much as the voiceover tries to tie it all together, it is largely a montage of individual scenes—that its overarching lack of cohesion might not bother you that much. 

It’s brilliant, on a meta level, to let the movie falter for the same reasons Molly does. My main quibble with Molly’s Game as a narrative (not as a viewing experience, which it’s a perfectly serviceable example of, which is something more movies could stand to be) is not that it’s too messy but that it’s not messy enough. While it establishes the contradiction between its protagonist’s prickliness and her desire for others’ approval—again, due more to Chastain’s work than anything else—the film misses an opportunity to dig into the tension between Molly’s firm moral core and her willingness to cede certain decisions to happenstance and others’ desires. 

Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game (2017)

Ultimately, Molly loses her LA game to Player X because she won’t sacrifice other players to shore up his ego. In an off game, in an off hand, Harlan (Bill Camp) loses to the worst player in the game (Brian d’Arcy James), and he makes increasingly impulsive bets to claw his way out of that hole. Player X seizes on these, and tries to inscript Harlan into indentured employment so that he can keep him in the game long enough to beat him—and Molly is appalled. It shouldn’t be hard to get an audience to empathize with the urge to sacrifice one’s own livelihood to protect Bill Camp, but the script insists on trying to draw a clean line from Molly’s troubled relationship with her father to her complex relationships with her players, and ends up flattening both beyond recognition in the process. 

That desire for tidiness turns certain segments of the movie into what feels like a treatise on daddy issues written by someone with a solid relationship with their father for consumers with solid relationships with their fathers, and there’s no more egregious example than the ice rink scene. Looking for a way to decompress after a fight with Charlie, Molly goes to a public ice rink and tries to goad other skaters—and then the security guards—into racing her. She crashes, looks up, and sees her estranged father, who’s been searching for her while keeping tabs on her trial, sitting outside the rink. 

Even though she remains hostile toward him for leaving her mother for another woman (presumably sometime after her qualifiers disaster, though this timeline never gets pinned down), she sits with him, and they hash out her neuroses—“three years of therapy in three minutes,” he claims. Year/minute one digs into his conclusion that she followed this path out of a desire to “control powerful men.” In the second, she demands an explanation for why he favored her older brothers, whose athletic careers both panned out in ways hers did not. The last minute leads them to something resembling a conclusion, one that overhauls his first claim. He resented her not because of her athletic failures—which, he makes sure to note, were entirely random—but because she knew he was cheating on her mother long before they ever separated; she’s not protecting her players from what would be revealed about them if she flipped, but their children, who she wants to protect from the burden of that knowledge. 

The moment is far too neat, and it feels like a studio-noted pick-up (please, explain why this woman is so unlikable). But the presence of Kevin Costner, who’s otherwise absent, gives away the fact that it was woven into the fabric of the film early. No disrespect to Costner, but the movie would hit harder if someone excised this moment and its pat series of explanations for Why Molly Is Like This. 

Without this scene, the movie would jump from Charlie accepting and defending Molly’s moral third rail—the thing that’s kept her intact through all of this, the organism that remains consistent beneath all the surface-level changes and relocations and severed relationships—to the justice system recognizing it as well. (A fantasy, and one that only applies to white people, to be clear.) It would not trace Molly’s fraught loyalty to her players to her fraught loyalty to her family of origin; it would not tie a neat bow that draws her past and present together. And, in doing so, it would give her the father-figure recognition she’s sought all along—not in the precise form she’d craved it, and not in a way that gives her an easy understanding of the past or a clear direction for the future, but in a way that validates the best things about the person she’s been all along, with or without the material signifiers of achievement. 

But that’s not the movie we have. Instead, it’s something that almost becomes the best iteration of itself. There’s another line of meta-commentary to be drawn there, but really, it’s just disappointing in a way I can’t rationalize away. And yet—knowing everything that happens, aware of all the film’s flaws, two years removed from my own young retirement, as settled as I’ll ever be—I sobbed the second time too.