(USA, 108 min.)
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard
Can a character actor be a leading man? Can a leading man be a character actor? Vegas odds tell film buffs to bet on the actors who play strange, offbeat characters in the supporting races, but to stack chips on the more conventionally attractive (but not necessarily more talented) actors when it comes to the top dogs. Mississippi Grind is a dark horse victory, though, as the film gives character actor Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom, Slow West) a lead performance that showcases his skills in top form and does the same for Canada’s Ryan Reynolds by offering a role that demands his leading man looks, but offers a challenge he has yet to face. Driven by two solid performances, Mississippi Grind plays its hand ever so smartly.
This new drama from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the team who pushed Canada’s other Ryan to new dramatic heights in Half Nelson, return with a gritty slice of realism in Mississippi Grind as bottomed-out cardshark Gerry (Mendelsohn) searches for a major score to clear his ever-mounting gambling debts. Cue a mystery stranger just as the dealer turns the river on Gerry’s fate, and this charming poker player, Curtis (Reynolds), is just the top-shelf bourbon drinker to change his fate. Gerry sees Curtis as a lucky charm (or a “leprechaun,” specifically) as his game turns into a winning streak in his presence. Gerry, who fastidiously studies behavioural tips to read players at the poker table, can’t spot Curtis’s tell, which makes him an ideal shark to shadow.
Curtis’s trick? He says he plays for fun. Playing for fun should be an obvious tell for any experienced gambler, but Gerry bites. The two take a road trip to New Orleans as they evade Gerry’s salad-eating bookie (Alfre Woodard, who goes from sweet to sinister in a quick flick) and look to clear Gerry’s debt.
Mississippi Grind isn’t so much about the payday as about the hunger to both win and lose. The film casts Gerry akin to a junkie as his gambling addiction sabotages his winning streak with Curtis. Up ten grand, Gerry might go all in because he has an inkling that doubling down brings the big payout; however, the itch to Mendelsohn’s performance tells that Gerry’s cares not so much about winning as he does about losing. Winning the game and coming out of the red robs Gerry of his purpose. Debt, on the other hand, keeps him going. It’s an excuse to play another game and increase the stakes as adrenaline levels rise higher than the stacks of chips around the table.
As a portrait of addiction, Mississippi Grind offers a sobering character study of self-destructive behaviour. Nothing is ever enough for Gerry and Curtis (whose own need to feed the habit masks itself far better than Gerry’s does) and Boden and Fleck create a world in which every minute of life is a gamble. Gerry flips coins to determine whether to settle the bar bill or keep on drinking, while a simple wager on passersby dictates whether the boys go big or go home. When everything hinges on fate, these men can escape the burden of responsibility. They both run from broken lives and as soon as the chips are evened out, then the hardest hand—life—is all that’s left to play.
Mendelsohn is strong as Gerry as hits rock bottom at the tables and at the races. Building on a character actor’s dexterity for minute layers of humanity and fallibility, Mendelsohn’s Gerry wears a gruff poker face that inevitably invests the audience not in a desire to see Gerry win the big score, but to overcome his addiction and recognize the emptiness of his life while he can still cash out. Reynolds, meanwhile, gives his most unexpected and strongest dramatic turn yet as Curtis. The role calls on Reynolds to exploit his A-list good looks, but it adds a some grey to his hair and some unkempt roughness to his exterior as his charm and personality play as Curtis’s own protective shield. Like Gerry, he masks his emptiness and loneliness, but as the better gambler between the two, his poker face is always switched on and charming us with misdirection.
Boden and Fleck deal their own hand of misdirection Mississippi Grind uses elements of the road movie to take the gamblers on a presumed road to redemption. What begins as a journey from A to B ultimately resembles a circular roadmap. As the men play game upon game and win some, lose some, Mississippi Grind challenges the players to recognize the futility of their own existence. Some pit spots with memorable characters played by Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, and especially Robin Weigert as Gerry’s ex-wife, show the extra losses that don’t factor into the ante when the gamblers’ hedge their stakes. These brief scenes play like turns on the poker table that change the odds as Gerry and Curtis reassess their hands and recognize when to call it. Despite the emptiness of Gerry and Curtis’s game, Mississippi Grind ultimately shows us how hard it hurts to lose. Winning isn’t everything, at least when it comes to the tables.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
Mississippi Grind is now out from VVS Films
It screens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox and is available on iTunes beginning Sept. 25