Bring on the female antiheroes — Hollywood’s antidote to the messy reality of 2017


It’s hard not to like Molly Bloom, or at least the version of the notorious “poker princess” that Jessica Chastain portrays in Aaron Sorkin’s new film, Molly’s Game (in theaters Dec. 25). Like so many Sorkinian heroes, she’s a bit of a jerk, but that manifests mostly in a headstrong strain of charisma. Because she knows full well that she’s the smartest, most competent person in any given room and because those rooms are usually full of wealthy, powerful male gamblers, she has to comport herself with a self-assurance bordering on arrogance just to survive.

Armed with a keen analytical mind and Sorkin’s lacerating wit, she refuses to take guff of any sort from the company she keeps. She busts balls, both in the “good-natured ribbing” sense and the “unsparing emasculation” sense. She’s the kind of person with whom you could crack open a beer or six over a night of five-card stud. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly about the film, Chastain has said, “I think the audience would definitely be rooting for Molly. In the first five minutes, I will say, the opening of the film, it’s so strong, and from the get-go, we are with her.”

But what Aaron Sorkin wants to know — or, rather, what he wants us to know — is whether or not she’s a good person. Molly Bloom was no angel, and there wouldn’t be a movie about her if she was: For years, she ran one of the highest-stakes private poker games in the country, hosting a clientele that included moguls, movie stars and some Russians with unsavory ties to the world of organized crime.

That last bit was the lone element that got Bloom in trouble with the law — her proximity to the real bad guys. Is she implicated in their wrongdoing? Does she have her own sins to answer for? And what cocktail of psychological motivators guides a woman from a 3.9 GPA and Olympic skiing prospects to financial ruin and a federal subpoena? These are the questions Sorkin has taken it upon himself to answer in his directorial debut, which he does in bold-italic typeface. The film revolves around court proceedings sorting through what dirt she might have on the Russians, but Sorkin’s the one playing judge.

His is one of a handful of new films that focus on a moral inventory of one conflicted woman as its raison d’etre. Just as Molly’s Game goes through Bloom’s entire life with a fine-toothed comb, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya attempts to suss out the content of figure skating icon Tonya Harding’s character, and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, likewise sifts through the soul of a supremely pissed-off grieving mother named Mildred (portrayed by Frances McDormand).

All three movies weigh these women’s faults against their virtues, and their wrongdoings against their good deeds. They all delve into their subject’s background in search of the factors at the root of their behavior. They consider contradictory nuances (chiefly the cohabitation of malice and mercy), and synthesize them to cast a fair and forgiving judgement on a soul — a process made so impossibly tidy it could only happen in the dreamland of Hollywood. Meanwhile, in the real world of Los Angeles, this ethical calculus has proven much messier.

Bloom, the Margot Robbie-played Harding and Mildred all court the title of antihero, going against the wholesome grain of the “strong female character,” a distinction so well-worn it’s got its own backlash and Wikipedia page. Sorkin excavates all the skeletons from Bloom’s closet — there’s the poker thing, sure, but there’s also the cocaine use and the queasy self-knowledge that she’s been facilitating the destruction of families and entire lives.

The thick stink of misogyny has been sprayed all over these films, and the women within them can choose to be a casualty or a corrective.

Harding and Mildred have much more in common. Both proud products of the blue-collar class, they curse with reckless abandon and take relish in losing their tempers on anyone dumb enough to cross their respective paths. (This is a source of black comedy for both films — McDormand gets her biggest laugh when she loses her cool and kicks a pair of insouciant teens in their groins, and I, Tonya’s comes as a pint-sized Harding flips the bird to her child competitors.)

Both women go to questionable extremes in pursuit of personal fulfillment, too. Mildred sets fire to her town’s police station, partly in protest and partly as an expression of impotent fury, while Harding kinda-sorta-maybe approves the assault of her primary rival on the ice, Nancy Kerrigan.

But for all their overtures to ambiguity and complexity, these three films fall over themselves rushing to exonerate their subjects. There are precisely two bad scenes in the otherwise roundly entertaining Molly’s Game: In the first, Bloom’s valiant lawyer mounts an impassioned defense of his client that boils down to four minutes of repeatedly shouting, “She’s actually a good person!” In the second, our gal has an emotional encounter with her father, where he plainly informs her that she only built her gambling empire out of repressed animosity for him. (He’s a therapist, but that doesn’t make his analysis any less obvious or reductive.)

With I, Tonya, Gillespie completely shatters the fourth wall so he can grab the audience by their lapels and shake his meaning right into them, using Harding as a mouthpiece during a surreal press conference to admonish the audience for making a gawky media spectacle of her troubled life. (Never mind that, by this point, the director has spent the preceding 90 minutes sniggering at the same exact thing.)

And in Three Billboards, Mildred’s got the high ground, only terrorizing the local law enforcement out of aggravation over their racism and incompetence in investigating her daughter’s rape and murder. These women can get their hands dirty and still remain fundamentally righteous.

In all three cases, the women are shown to be survivors of men and the society they dominate. Beginning with her withdrawn father and ending with the creeps that frequent her game, Bloom has to keep a straight face while men insult her, flirt with her, threaten her and debase themselves in front of her. Both Mildred and Harding muscle their way through domestic abuse at the hands of violent husbands. (Harding must also contend with her tyrannical mother, played by Allison Janney, doing her best impression of Mo’Nique in Precious).

The thick stink of misogyny has been sprayed all over these films, and the women within them can choose to be a casualty or a corrective. In 2017, it’s part wish fulfillment and part real-world parallel that each film sees its subject gaining some semblance of control back over her life. Obviously, given their production and release timelines, these films weren’t conceived as direct comments on our present moment — but that’s no impediment to interpreting them as channels for shared cultural frustrations and woes.

These films have brought a sorely needed dose of straightforwardness to a year when it feels like nobody can trust anyone anymore.

The specifically gendered nature of these characters’ hardships makes it easier both for the audience and the director to form a verdict on them. We’re given enough detail to place these questionable actions in a context not quite of self-defense, but of understandable pushback against a cold and oppositional world. These films imply that you, or any reasonable person, would do the same thing in the given circumstances.

All of these women hold up their end of the bargain by proving that they deserve the empathy their creators have ascribed to them. They fulfill an idealistic fantasy — that if we could only gather all of the pieces that make up a person’s life, we’d be able to see that there’s goodness at the center of their being. As Chastain suggests, the audience wants to root for Molly Bloom to succeed from the start, and the film rewards the lenient viewer, along with Bloom’s faithful lawyer (Idris Elba), by showing that their emotional generosity hasn’t been misplaced.

It’s telling that this same technique — of locating the grain of decency hiding inside an objectionable person — hasn’t been met with such a positive reception when applied to Officer Dixon, the virulently racist cop that Sam Rockwell plays in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDonagh offers a toxic home environment and bile-spouting mother as a rationale for Dixon’s outdated attitudes, and even grants him a redemptive plot beat showing that his intolerance has limits and he’s held onto some basic semblance of humanity. But this move has rung false for many critics who are frustrated that his seemingly intentional cruelty has been excused without having first earned it.

Ultimately, all transgressions are not created equal. Officer Dixon has committed several hate crimes, something that several different characters mention throughout Three Billboards. Like sexual assault, racially charged violence doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. Even murder can be done out of desperate necessity, but there has never been a good reason for sexual assault.

It is for this reason that each new report of real-life sexual impropriety has been met with apoplectic rage from the public, rather than calls for cool-headedness and circumspection. Because we can never know the totality of a person in the way that a neatly constructed movie script can reveal, the general public and kangaroo court of social media has no impetus to look past present and obvious moral defects.

These character studies bill themselves as complicated depictions of their women, but in actuality, these films have brought a sorely needed dose of straightforwardness to a year when it feels like nobody can trust anyone anymore. It’s comforting and somewhat reassuring to peer directly into someone’s inner fiber and pan for nuggets of dignity. That these movies all succeed in pinpointing their subjects’ scruples reinforces the belief that even the worst people can still be worthy of patience, consideration and acceptance. It’s a lie, but it’s a nice lie, and that’s movies for you.