Grind over matter.
If things had worked out differently for Ben Mendelsohn and he’d become famous when he was 25 rather than when he was 40, it’s not certain we’d be appreciating him as much as we are now – nor that he’d be getting the roles he is now. Mendelsohn’s casting seems to be dictated by needing someone with a worn-out, lived-in feel to him, but who paradoxically feels fresh to us as audience members. If he were just worn out, then maybe he wouldn’t be making the dynamite contribution to cinema he’s currently making.
With Mississippi Grind, unfortunately, the Australian actor is dynamite in a movie that doesn’t quite keep pace with the quality of his own performance. It’s essentially a two-hander with him and Ryan Reynolds, who reminds us just how much he can rise to the occasion when the material asks a bit more from him. Mississippi Grind is that kind of material, but it still doesn’t quite materialise.
It’s the story of two seasoned gamblers riding two significantly different strains of luck. Mendelsohn’s Gerry is a sad sack Iowan who owes money to “everyone,” a statement he emphasises by looking around the bar hopelessly, giving the impression that even the guy sleeping it off in the corner is one of his creditors. Reynolds’ Curtis, on the other hand, seems to have a magical knack for picking the right dog or playing the right hunch, though he never stays anywhere more than a couple weeks and there’s a mystery about his past. The guys meet at a poker table, and view it as a cosmic sign that they both saw the same magnificent rainbow and that they keep running into each other over the next few days. A scheme is hatched to partner Gerry’s technically sound but luckless card skills with Curtis’ inexplicable dumb luck, and make enough money on a road trip down the Mississippi River to get the $25,000 entry fee to a big poker tournament in New Orleans.
This character study from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the minds behind such indie hits as Half Nelson and Sugar, is purposefully low key. The problem is that they’ve chosen a traditionally high-concept genre. Movies about gambling often find themselves in one of two categories, either about guys with no luck, or guys with incredible luck. Neither story is particularly satisfying from the perspective of realism, since the odds are that it should be somewhere in between. Mississippi Grind manages that in-between approach by having one of each type in this movie, but it’s still stuck within the limitations of assuming that the way a hand of cards goes for these guys speaks to some defining quality of them as human beings. Of course, the real character study in a gambling movie is not whether someone wins or loses, but how they handle winning or losing, and when or whether they decide to walk away, in order to prevent one from becoming the other. That does also come through in this study of these two men, in a bit more satisfying fashion.
Still, there’s a kind of magical realism to this movie that’s a departure for Boden and Fleck, and they don’t quite pull it off. Curtis is not entirely a character out of folklore, walking into Gerry’s life to be the platonic heterosexual equivalent of a manic pixie dream girl, but he’s close enough to make us question his believability. In order to ground him, Boden and Fleck show us flashes of a relationship with an under-utilised Sienna Miller, presenting some evidence of his mental and emotional instability. But these scenes only tantalise us, making us ask more questions without being willing to provide answers.
As merely an acting exercise for Mendelsohn and Reynolds, though, this is great stuff. Mendelsohn has made uncommonly good choices about the type of projects to associate himself with, and this is no different, even if it does not fully get there. Gerry has so dedicated himself to his strategy for reading other players that he even has an audio tape of 200 common tells by poker players and how to interpret them. Through his body language and gestures, Mendelsohn the actor cycles through any number of these tells himself at different points of the movie. This tape also functions a bit like an encyclopaedia of acting tricks, but Mendelsohn is such a natural that he doesn’t need such coaching. Reynolds is less of a natural and more of a movie star, but he makes us believe his own solid technical fundamentals whenever he gives a performance like this. They’re a good odd couple and the story takes them to some enjoyable places.
Mississippi Grind’s biggest flaw is that it isn’t likely to stick with a viewer, but rather just float off to sea like a piece of driftwood traveling down the Mississippi River. Then again, good driftwood is not always easy to come by, and Boden and Fleck have fashioned a pretty nice piece of it here.