Opening Monday, Dec. 25

You either dig Aaron Sorkin’s distinctive voice or you don’t. The acclaimed screenwriter makes his directorial debut in Molly’s Game, and the removal of that creative check allows Sorkin to mainline his rapid-fire prose. The result is a heady high-wire act with dialogue that constantly twists and turns, triggering the adrenaline rush that comes from being entertained while fearing the entire enterprise could collapse at any moment. Thankfully, all the participants are up to the task.

In the past decade, Sorkin has specialized in spinning intricate yarns around true stories: Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. Real-life “poker princess” Molly Bloom (impressively portrayed by Jessica Chastain) is Sorkin’s first female protagonist, a hard-nosed former skier whose Olympic dreams were thwarted by injury and a domineering dad (Kevin Costner). After dropping out of law school, she lands in Los Angeles and, eventually, its notorious card games.

Molly’s Game darts between timelines. Bloom rises to acclaim as a glamorous hostess in the world of underground poker, an exclusive playground for movie stars, business tycoons, card sharps, and shady mobsters. But Bloom’s high-stakes lifestyle gives way to addiction. After she is charged with running an illegal gambling den, she’s left with only one ally: her attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba, in fine form).

The film, like the memoir it’s based on, conceals the identities of famous players, which detracts a bit from the intoxicating air of the card games. The conspicuous absence of friends and romance in Bloom’s story makes her seem incomplete as a character. But narrative deficits in Sorkin’s script are filled in by the crackling byplay between Bloom and Jaffey, not to mention Bloom’s constant narration. In the end, her refusal to name names is what passes for virtue in Molly’s Game, a sole shred of integrity when everything else has fallen apart.