“Mendelsohn and Reynolds are a pair of aces in ‘Mississippi Grind’”
Writers/directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds
Gambling is as American as hot dogs, muscle cars, blue jeans, and football on crisp autumn weekends. Beautiful multi-million and billion-dollar casinos dot the nation’s landscape in every direction, and, of course, there is a good reason why these gaming houses resemble prosperous palaces: The house always wins.
Despite this known and obvious fact, this does not deter millions of Americans from partaking in the recreation of gambling. For Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) - a struggling real estate agent - gambling is not a leisurely recreation, it is his life’s obsession. Texas hold ‘em poker is Gerry’s game of choice, but he is more than happy to fill his time by placing some cash on an Hawaii vs. Gonzaga college basketball game, playing the ponies or betting $50 that the next guy walking out of the bathroom will be wearing glasses. Gerry is a skilled poker player and very careful to mask his tells, but every molecule of his 44-year-old being screams (to everyone) a message of: Life has stomped me into the ground for decades, and I’m here to beg for another helping of the world’s size-14 boot.
Gerry is a beaten man, but believes his luck will change when he befriends Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) at a random Dubuque, Iowa poker table, and suddenly, an extremely well-acted and completely intriguing buddy picture is born. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wrote and directed a terrific gambling road movie, however, it does not dabble in glitzy high-stakes with posh surroundings, limousines, baccarat, and martinis shaken not stirred. On the contrary, Boden and Fleck do not mind delving into – and, in fact, enjoy bathing in – the messy and sobering world of the degenerate gambler. They take Gerry and Curtis on a blue-collar trip down the Mississippi River, and they hit home games, casinos, horse and dog tracks, and grind their way towards a final destination of New Orleans. Driving 1,000 miles in a 2003 Subaru does not appear like the easiest path to success, but when one starts with just $2,000 of seed money, plodding a route to The Big Easy seems like the only course of action.
We root for Gerry and Curtis, but they are not heroes. Curtis – a good-looking 35-year-old with a spring in his step, several funny gambling stories, an eye for the ladies, and a good supply of cash in-hand – seemingly has his act together, but playing poker at a random Iowa casino on a weeknight certainly raises suspicions. It is obvious why Gerry would glom onto Curtis as a friend, but why does Curtis want to make friends (and take a trip) with Gerry?
Gerry owes a lot of money to “Everyone” in town, and with excuses like “I just need a couple of weeks” and a looming visit from an unseen ruffian named Tim, one wonders if he might double-cross Curtis at some point. These men have a sickness and a case of arrested development, but the script and performances can win your affection. Mendelsohn is simply astonishing as Gerry. With a crop of disheveled hair from a style last seen 20 years ago, a constant and heartbroken look in his tired eyes and a mopey frown pulled down by years of disappointment, Gerry is a man who needs a rainbow containing good fortune. The lingering wonder, however, is: any success he might enjoy seems doomed in a future decision of “let’s go double or nothing.”
Using this dynamic, Mendelsohn pulls us into the center of Gerry’s lost soul and generates massive hope that Lady Luck and good decision-making will finally reach him. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of a Toronto banker turned compulsive gambler in 2007’s nerve-racking “Owning Mahowny” was my favorite gambling performance of all-time, but I believe Mendelsohn topped it. Mendelsohn delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, as he reaches into the core of a desperate man whose only way out of a gigantic financial hole is to recklessly look for ways to scrape enough cash and continue his destructive gambling patterns. At the same time, we see small glimpses of Gerry’s best side in unexpected ways and periods of joy with his new friend close-by, and these moments help us feel good as his cheering section.
Reynolds adds plenty of depth and mystery to Curtis’s character. As a partner-in-vice – with a mostly sunny and somewhat level-headed disposition - we hope Curtis is the lucky charm Gerry insists that he is. Unfortunately, we know Gerry’s track record in judgment, so the ultimate destiny for these two is in serious doubt and is the perfect concoction for a tension-filled and captivating road picture.
Unlike 2013’s “Nebraska” in which the countryside between Montana and Nebraska becomes a living and breathing character in the film, the actual topography of this journey seems rather ordinary. “Mississippi Grind” gives us some glimpses of St. Louis, Memphis and other places along the way, but does not take enough advantage of the natural settings in the heartland. I suppose when a majority of the action (pardon the pun) takes place inside casinos or smoky bars, plenty of beautiful countryside shots might take a back seat.
No, the strength of this involving character study is with the lead performances. With Boden and Fleck also adding several small, but memorable, exchanges with bit characters who embrace a casino-lifestyle, dispense advice like, “a man alone is half a man” and drink bourbon in smoky lounges, the film’s obvious downtrodden and desperate tone is set. It is not a glamorous trip - and quite frankly, it’s a sooty one at times - but Boden, Fleck, Reynolds, and Mendelsohn offer a rich, entertaining and sometimes painful story down America’s most famous river. Whether or not Gerry and Curtis win, I’ll bet on “Mississippi Grind” as the best gambling film I’ve seen in years. (3.5/4 stars)