Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn excel in this character piece about two gamblers down on their luck
“I have a problem with money,” whispers Gerry, the gambler played by Ben Mendelsohn in Mississippi Grind, by way of warning to a young female escort. This may count as the greatest understatement in a film this year. It’s not just that Gerry is hopeless at knowing when to quit – which he is – but that he seems to ooze defeat from every exhausted pore. Defeat, and cheap bourbon.
He has a broken marriage, a non-relationship with his daughter, and a hideous mountain of debt to show for it. Nominally he’s trying to get back up on his feet as an estate agent in Dubuque, Iowa. But it doesn’t take much for him to jack this in, swipe $200 from the petty cash tin, and power down the Mississippi, hitting every poker table that will have him.
And then Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) arrives on the scene and joins him for the journey – he is a younger, savvier, blither new acquaintance, a classic Ryan Reynolds type, who sizes up Gerry amid a dozen players one night and singles him out as an ally. Curtis is an enabling shot in the arm for Gerry’s aspirations, but the film is complex enough to wonder if he’s a good and a bad accomplice – shoulder-angel and shoulder-devil – at the same time.
Their attitude to poker is different, too: Curtis affects not to care about winning, an imposture which works so well that no one can tell if he’s bluffing. Gerry never bluffs. He bides his time, darting quick looks from under his brows, holding fire for a rash overbid or sudden show of nerves across the table.
After the game that brings them together, these two never compete against each other again, or at least not at cards. Curtis could probably drink this decrepit hound right into an early grave, but in an inversion of their age gap, has a fatherly way with the older man – it’s certainly not a simple matter of one taking the other for a ride.
There’s no one big hit, no single payday in mind. In fact, there is no discernible plot. We simply watch as the pair try their luck, time and again, and a ragged friendship builds.
From its unshowy script on down, Mississippi Grind is content to rumble along as a character piece, keeping its storytelling loose and unpredictable, like a repeat flick of the dice. It’s a significant recovery for writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, valuable players on the American indie scene. The one-two punch of their junkie-teacher portrait Half Nelson (2006) and minor-league immigrant baseball tale Sugar (2008) – both terrific – was followed up by the worryingly precious It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010). Their work is best when it’s grounded in a palpable and slightly desperate reality, as it is here.
Nighthawks and neon abound. The faces of extras around each new table are like tiny cameos in a psychological focus group. Alfre Woodard is a money-lender at the end of her tether – all solicitude, but with soft threats between the lines. Sienna Miller pops up as an old flame of Curtis’s – she’s an escort, and what comes between them is payment, as it always has. When she and her younger companion (Analeigh Tipton) take the men in for an evening, a fleeting glow of conviviality creeps in: the film never feels more like Robert Altman’s California Split (1974) than it does here.
Elliott Gould and George Segal gave knockout performances in that underrated buddy movie, and it’s remarkable how inspired both leads are in this, too. Reynolds, better than ever, has a strangely durable brand of star appeal, given the wreckage of his blockbuster choices: his gregarious chutzpah never feels too put-on, and he does a great job suggesting Curtis’s growing pity and alarm at the disaster area next to him. Given that their relationship is basically contingent on winning, these two start doing an awful lot of losing. It’s inevitable from one look at Mendelsohn, who, as usual, is like a broken cherub, or one gone to seed: in the bruised and battered gallery of his work since Animal Kingdom (2010), this might be the main event.
He responds to failure in an astonishingly real way, as Gerry just makes things worse for himself, dropping in on his furious ex-wife (Robin Wiegert) and trying to forage for cash in her sock drawer. The backstory here is almost too painful to contemplate. But it’s summed up by one nemesis card, the Queen of Spades, which comes down in a shock reversal, costing Gerry a devastating fortune. He stares down at her, almost trying to see the funny side. Then he gets in his car, sobs like a baby, and wants to die. Ryan Gosling’s heroin addict in Half Nelson was a man drowning, but you’d probably take that fate over the hungry demons eating Gerry alive