This movie reminds me of The Prestige when it comes to the central theme of obsession and asking how far an individual would go to devote oneself to a craft. Bobby is a tormented, anti-semitic player who suffers from a persecution complex which limits him from reaching his untapped potential. It is mentioned early on that after just four moves, there are billions of options to consider and that reality is enough to fathom the level of dedication required to master this game and the impact it can have on Bobby’s state of mind. It doesn’t help that he has to deal with intensified media scrutiny as he travels around the globe to challenge the top players. Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg make up the supporting cast and both play a crucial role as the united voice of reason against the seething madness building within Bobby. No matter how many of Bobby’s absurd demands are met, it’s never enough. They range from understandable concerns like keeping his distance from the audience to outrageous requests like having his food prepared before him on a private plane to ensure he is not poisoned by his enemies. And it doesn’t stop there. Bobby accuses his friends of conspiring against him when they challenge his ideology and try to control him. He lashes out at every turn and seems unwilling to actually play a game of chess. Bobby simply hangs onto the notion that he is the best chess player in the world and does his best to avoid playing his scheduled matches against Boris.
There is a lot of dry humor that comes from unexpected places. Despite the tremendous focus on Bobby, we do see how his rival Boris reacts to similar scenarios. It becomes quite clear that he is also out of his mind but is accepting of the fact and doesn’t get bogged down by the same oddities that influence Bobby. However he is equally unstable and there comes a point where the level of paranoia is just downright hysterical as is witnessed in a particular scene that involves a chair. Boris understands Bobby’s reluctance to play him and agrees to his demands in order to finally corner him and end Bobby’s tendency to put off facing him.
Unfortunately, Pawn Sacrifice raises questions that are simply left unanswered and glosses over a lot of what transpires in this film. A few scenes feel like they exist for the sake of addressing the obvious and this harms the already slow momentum that the movie has going for itself. Furthermore, it isn’t quite clear how seriously Bobby’s insecurities are to be taken. His character swings from a troubled young man to an overbearing lunatic back to someone who we’re supposed to feel sorry for. I don’t feel that this is effectively done because Bobby doesn’t do anything in the third act of the film to garner forgiveness but rather is forced to cooperate with others for the movie to reach its resolution. I have also heard that there are some minor inaccuracies with the film but unless you’re a keen chess fan it is likely to pass over general audiences and shouldn’t detract from the experience.
I would recommend Pawn Sacrifice as it is likely to be a divisive film that hinges upon your changing level of sympathy towards Bobby as he violently reacts to the world around him. This film has some fascinating subject matter yet it isn’t fully explored and left me wanting more. While it is admittedly slow paced and quite reliant on exposition, this movie will show you a man who is on the edge and struggling to navigate a world that he views as fraught with danger and conspiracy at every turn.