Circe & Psychology: The Feminist Undertones of Molly’s Game

While the criticism levied specifically at Jessica Chastain–as opposed to the other white actresses she appeared on the tone deaf cover of The Los Angles Times‘ The Envelope section with (Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger and Annette Bening)–has been brutal these past few days, it bears noting that her latest film, Molly’s Game, does send a message that’s in keeping with the feminist motif that has been particularly salient this year. That motif, of course, plays into the TIME Person of the Year cover showcasing the “Silence Breakers“–those no longer willing to be controlled, sexually or otherwise, by the whims of men, which are never grounded in any sense of fairness or merit, but driven, as Molly (Chastain) notes in her voiceover, solely by ego and power tripping.

As the first of his own movies Aaron Sorkin finally felt comfortable directing, Molly’s Game is also given a somewhat ironic twist for being written and directed by a man. That Sorkin consulted with Bloom throughout the entire process only adds to the theme of the story: her desire to be around power while manipulating it. Based on her memoir of the same name, much of the screenplay holds true to Bloom’s biography, save for the part where she injures herself during an Olympic skiing competition, made all the more risk-oriented for her scoliosis impediment. In real life, she merely settled for the bronze and moved on (unlike, say, Tonya Harding). But that wouldn’t make for as dramatic of a motive for deferring law school and moving to Los Angeles to “experience youth.” For you see, her entire life, she was working to agitate her father, Dr. Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner), a psychologist and professor at the University of Colorado. Making brash statements to get his attention (Sigmund Freud was a misogynist with a psychological philosophy little better than a horoscope, etc.), Molly felt in constant competition with her other two brothers, one ultimately a two-time Olympian and the other a revered surgeon. Vying to feel respected in the same way by her father as her brothers, Molly turns rebellious and angry rather quickly.

So when the opportunity arises to work for a “real estate guy” named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong)–true identity: Darin Feinstein, co-owner of the Viper Room–Molly happily accepts the position in addition to her cocktail waitressing job. It is through Dean that she is given the chance to host celebrity-heavy, high-stakes poker games at the “Cobra Lounge.” One player in particular, referred to as Player X, was a real hot shot of the moment, which still can’t really justify his douche bag behavior. Perhaps as an ultimate “fuck you” to Tobey Maguire, Molly’s ultimate poker player adversary and the basis for Player X, he is downgraded in the form of being played by Michael Cera. As the book details, Maguire’s proneness to ensuring Molly knew her place the more known it became how much her take was for the night reaches a zenith when he demands of her in front of the other poker players, “Bark like a seal who wants a fish.” When Molly tries to laugh it off, praying he’ll get the hint, he asserts, “I’m not kidding. What’s wrong? You’re too rich now? You won’t bark for a thousand dollars? Wowwww . . . you must be really rich.”

It was at this point that Molly knew her livelihood–and with it the place in the world she had carved out for herself–was at a higher risk than any of the gambling addicts’ next bet at the table. It was thus that in 2007, she decided to go on the level by registering Molly Bloom Inc. as a catering and entertainment company. And, in many ways, that’s precisely what it was–minus the part where millions of dollars changed hands between greed and power-driven bigwigs. Taking her failed act from L.A. to start anew in New York, Bloom built up the most expensive and elite “man cave” in town, as her book publisher wants to position it. As the gatekeeper to all this power, all this bottled energy liable to explode if not handled and literally massaged correctly, Bloom seemed to have more control over the most influential people in the U.S. than Hillary Clinton ever might have hoped to as president. She wouldn’t realize it until the “aha moment” we’re hit on the head with by her father in the third act of the movie, but this level of domination had long been a deeply-seated need within her.

In addition to being leered at and worse by the likes of Player X, Molly frequently receives declarations of love by regular players, like Douglas Downey (Chris O’Dowd), who also, as he likes to mention often, happens to be the only Irishman the Russians in Brighton Beach will allow to play in their poker game. When Molly asks him to bring a few of them to the game next time (this is where the explanation for the FBI’s involvement in the story comes into play) in exchange for a loss he can’t repay, Downey comments, “I thought you were Irish.” In true Sorkin-made dialogue form, Molly counters. “You’re confusing me with the James Joyce character. Let’s move past that.” But this isn’t the only brilliantly snarky exchange between the two of them. When Downey drunkenly confesses his love for her, she balks, “Of course you love me. I’m the anti-wife,” adding, for good measure, “Are you familiar with Circe? She gorged and entertained men until turning them into pigs.” Except in Molly’s case, most of the men who sit down at her table are already pigs to begin with.

Despite her intelligence, shrewdness and talent, Molly is, through it all, still just a glorified cocktail waitress–the one profession that can truly disappoint her father as a means to defy all the grooming he went through to make her “great.” But at the core, it is as he says when he confronts her while she’s on a break in Central Park from her lawyer Charlie Jaffey’s (Idris Elba): “You wanted to have power over powerful men.” Way to make it about you, Dad. But yeah, it’s completely accurate Psych 101 shit.

As the real Bloom recently put it, “I was no longer this object of desire. I was someone who let them have their money to play the game—or didn’t.” So what’s the takeaway, for once, from a Sorkin movie? Don’t suppress or make women feel less than. They might just financially castrate you, which is a more forceful type of castration in these genitalia-free times anyway.

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