Mississippi Grind

30 November 2015 | 4:44 pm | Guy Davis

"Mendelsohn is the main reason to see Mississippi Grind."

Gerry is a born loser. Sorry, but it's the truth. His home is a dump. His marriage ended badly. His career is going nowhere. He looks like he slept in his clothes. He listens to tapes — tapes — that offer gambling tips, but those tips don't seem to be helping because he's heavily in debt to a friendly but quietly malevolent loan shark. But Gerry won't stop gambling. He can't stop gambling.

In a different movie starring a different actor, Gerry would be too sad to watch for too long. But in the low-key, '70s influenced Mississippi Grind, he's played by Ben Mendelsohn. And Mendelsohn — who has long been a gifted, magnetic actor but who in recent years has started operating at an even higher level — brings this sad sack to rich, three-dimensional life. You can't help but stick with this guy, even when his misguided actions and complete lack of luck make it tough to do so.

Maybe that's why Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a fellow gambler who has in abundance the casual charm and good fortune that have bypassed Gerry, is drawn to him, and why the two men form an unlikely partnership to embark on a road trip to a high-stakes poker game hundreds of miles away. But is Curtis Gerry's lucky charm (Gerry calls him his "leprechaun") or is Gerry being played for a sucker?

Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) are more taken with the dynamic between these two, and their interactions with the people they encounter at their various stops, than a forward-driving narrative. But their intuitive, lived-in grasp of character and flair for grubby, worn-down texture more than makes up for any lulls in Mississippi Grind's momentum.

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Reynolds hasn't been this well employed in years, the actor and the filmmakers using his glib, happy-go-lucky demeanor as a mask for dissatisfaction and a lack of direction — it's the perfect poker face. But Mendelsohn is the main reason to see Mississippi Grind. His performance is a finely detailed and indelible portrait of a person beaten down but not entirely defeated by bad luck and bad decisions.