Sycamore Pictures/Electric City Entertainment
Gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is down on his luck. He’s got nothing left to lose. He has all his cards on the table. He’s gotten a bad hand. He’s rolling the dice. All those cliches? They apply to Gerry, because they’re true (that is, after all, how something becomes a cliche – it’s true first and then true a lot). But although Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Mississippi Grind tackles a well-worn cinematic storyline (remember The Gambler? that came out mere weeks ago!), the atmospheric and and beautifully crafted feature mostly overcomes its genre brethren to pump fresh blood into the material, with stellar turns from both Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds bolstering the material still further.
Gerry is a loser of the highest degree – a loser who might actually enjoy losing – and he’s gambled his life away until he’s got next to nothing to show for it. His wife has left him. He never sees his daughter. He owes money to Alfre Woodard (just go with it). He hates his job. He drives a Subaru. The only thing that brightens Gerry up even a little bit is a nice poker table and a cheap glass of whiskey. The second that the cocky, confident Curtis (Reynolds) walks into one of his regular joints, Gerry is done for, because Curtis chooses him to befriend and Curtis someone special. Curtis is a lucky charm.
Convinced that Curtis is the key to a low-key winning streak, Gerry begins steadily ratcheting up his gambles until Curtis suggests they go big and hit a pricey game in New Orleans that has a big, glittery pot for the winner. It’s not surprising that Gerry would come under Curtis’ sway, as the younger man is endlessly appealing, a generous friend, and just plain fun to be around. Curtis likes good things, like nice whiskey and a pretty woman, and Gerry hasn’t had many good things in his life for a long time. A trip to New Orleans? A giant stake to get into a game? A big risk? Of course, Curtis! Whatever you want!
And that’s the twist of Mississippi Grind, a film that doesn’t need a twist to be compelling or impressive. We’re automatically on Gerry’s side, thanks to both the function of perspective (he’s the guy we’re following, thus we assume he’s our guy, a good guy) and his sad sack story (surely, this guy will find some kind of redemption by the time the film ends, right?), and that means that we’re also naturally suspicious of Curtis, who blows in out of nowhere and up-ends everything. Reynolds does some of his best work here, and his continually shifting performance as Curtis is the kind of turn that almost necessitates another watch to fully understand. Mendelsohn is even more finely tuned as Gerry, and as we slowly begin to realize his true nature and what we’re really watching unfold on the big screen, his performance takes on still more dimensions.
Mississippi Grind isn’t interested in trading in absolutes or dividing things into good and bad, and both Mendelsohn and Reynolds subtly and steadily toe the line between protagonist and antagonist, good guy and bad guy, right and wrong. In another world, Mississippi Grind is a film told from Curtis’ perspective, with Gerry cast as some shifty-eyed loser who can’t be trusted, but in this world, Fleck and Boden refuse to label things in such a basic way, leaving plenty to the audience to judge for themselves.
As ever, Fleck and Boden are consumed with veracity, and Mississippi Grind is a film that looks real. The people look real, the places look real, and the overall effect is one of honesty. It’s a fine entry into their oeuvre, and easily their best film since Half Nelson. Still, the film’s mostly sure-handed direction and tone falls off in the third act, as the film cycles through at least three different and suitable “endings” without fully embracing any of them and never committing to any kind of overarching message or lesson. Of course, real life doesn’t work like that, but the film’s final messy feel doesn’t seem like the kind of wise choice that’s made throughout the rest of the material, but an unwillingness to, yes, put all their cards on the table.
The Upside: Beautifully atmospheric and moody, excellent performances from both Reynolds and Mendelsohn, subtly toys with perception and perspective.
The Downside: The film’s final act meanders too much to leave an impact, Tipton and Miller are given far too little to do.
On the Side: Jake Gyllenhaal was originally cast in Reynolds’ role, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.