Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's relaxed, charming gambling flick Mississippi Grind has a lot of appealing qualities, chief among them the fact that it finally gives Ben Mendelsohn the perfect leading role he so clearly deserves. Over the past few years, Mendelsohn has made a name for himself as one of cinema's most memorable lowlifes; popping up in the background of films like Killing Them Softly, The Dark Knight Rises, Black Sea, Slow West and The Place Beyond the Pines and stealing scenes from his higher-profile co-stars. Now, he steps into the spotlight and confirms that he absolutely deserves to be there. This character is more lovable than most of the others he's played, but no less rich. The movie's good, but you'll remember Mendelsohn's terrific performance long after you've forgotten everything else about Mississippi Grind.
The story details the ups and downs of a pair of gamblers who cross paths while one is up and the other is down. Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a gifted but struggling middle-aged poker player who's up to his neck in debt but still seems convinced that he can gamble his way back into the black. Curtis (Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern) is a handsome, confident young gambler who's currently in the middle of an ongoing hot streak. The two meet at a low-stakes poker table, share a few drinks, have a few laughs and then decide that maybe they'll pair up for a while, wandering from one low-rent casino to another along the Mississippi River and soaking in the pleasures of each place as they go. Like most gamblers, Gerry has something of a superstitious streak, and figures that maybe Curtis' luck will brush off on him. But what is Curtis getting out of this? He's got something up his sleeve, right?
Maybe so, but one of the things I like about Mississippi Grind is that it never quite goes where you're expecting it to go. This is a relaxed, atmospheric hangout movie – reminiscent of a lot of '70s American cinema, though much closer in spirit to the loose charm of Robert Altman's California Split than to the sweat-inducing tension of James Toback's The Gambler (Toback makes a colorful cameo late in the proceedings) – that consistently makes the plot a secondary concern. When something resembling “plot movement” actually happens, you're surprised, because you've been too caught up in the moment to spend much time thinking about what's around the corner.
As the film amiably shuffles along, winning streaks come and go, con games start and finish, the mood shifts, the tone shifts, the subject matter shifts. One reel, we're in a gleeful gambling movie in which our characters are finding ways to bet on things as obscure as whether the next person who walks out of the men's restroom will be wearing glasses. Another reel, we're in a downbeat relationship drama in which Gerry and Curtis are trying to earn forgiveness from women they have disappointed too many times. Nothing lasts very long, though, and that's largely the point: for better or worse, life can turn around on a dime (though this is prone to happen more often when your entire bankroll is on the blackjack table).
It's fun to observe the way Reynolds and Mendelsohn bounce off each other, the former's youthful energy contrasting nicely with the latter's (usually-)relaxed curiosity. Mendelsohn is fascinating when he's speaking (Gerry is a mess, but he's also incapable of hiding the sheepish embarrassment he feels over what a mess he is), and even more fascinating when he's just listening: just look at the ways his eyes simultaneously express bemusement, doubt and pleasure as he observes the chatty Reynolds and wonders what his game is. Deep down, these two guys know that some kind of betrayal might be just around the corner, but they don't seem to mind all that much because they genuinely enjoy each other's company. Whatever happens, they'll have had a nice experience. The same goes for the movie.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2015