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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review: Mississippi Grind (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds

One turns everything he touches to gold and couldn't seem to care less, the other just can't stop losing. Even when he's winning, he can't help but start losing, pushing and pushing his luck until he's lost it all over again. Together, they're a pretty bad combination, but left to their own devices they aren't exactly doing great, either. Helmed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as the mismatched pair, Mississippi Grind is part buddy movie, part road movie, and part addiction drama, and though it relies on some of the well-worn tropes of each, it's well-realized and compelling enough to transcend cliches.

The two men in question are Gerry (Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Reynolds), who meet during a poker tournament. Curtis is the kind of guy who gambles for the company, for the transient friendship that might develop around the table once he blows into the room and makes it his business to become everybody's friend, if only for a moment. Winning comes easily to him because he doesn't care about it; it's the experience of playing that he enjoys rather than the end result. Gerry is the kind of guy whose car stereo is perpetually playing a tape listing common "tells" people display while playing cards and has the beaten down look of someone who never knows when to quit. In a different way, he's also in it more for the experience of playing rather than the result, driven by the compulsion to keep laying bets until there's nothing left. Gerry's a born loser but, somehow, when Curtis is around, he seems to finally have some luck. Unfortunately, Curtis is only passing through town, so their time together is brief. Fortunately, Curtis ends up blowing right back into town and is game when Gerry suggests a gambling tour down the Mississippi, with a poker game in New Orleans with a $25,000 buy-in as the final destination.

Their first stop is St. Louis, where Curtis reconnects with Simone (Sienna Miller), who is sometimes his girlfriend but is mostly a prostitute and far too pragmatic to buy in to Curtis' rambling lifestyle. When he arrives with Gerry, Simone is less than impressed, having seen Curtis let other gamblers hitch their wagon to his star with predictably bad results, but Curtis assures her that Gerry is a good bet. When they get to Memphis, however, and Gerry is left to his own devices for a while, he loses all of the money that Curtis had staked him in a poker game and then lies to Curtis, telling him that he won big, because he has a plan. He spins the story of his win to connect it to a sudden inspiration to win back his ex-wife, convincing Curtis that they should take a detour to Little Rock so that he can pay her a visit. Things get progressively worse for the pair once they hit Little Rock, and their plan to hit New Orleans and make the big score that will set them on easy street starts to seem about as possible as finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Mississippi Grind travels some pretty familiar genre ground, but as Curtis is fond of saying, "the journey is the destination," and the plot points that the film hits are ultimately far less important to its overall quality than the interactions between the two men at the center of it. Reynolds and Mendelsohn have an easy chemistry together, the laissez faire attitude of the one acting as an intriguing balance to the obsessive nature of the other. This isn't to say that, at any point, it feels like anything really good can come of the relationship since both men seem fairly intent on destroying whatever gains they make - for Gerry that's the winnings that could get him out of the hole he's dug himself into, for Curtis it's relationships and companionship that last more than a day; both men seem driven to ensure that they spend every day starting over at zero and working their way back up - but the characters work together in a way that makes their scenes compelling even when the narrative is taking them through the motions of the genre.

As Curtis, Reynolds does nice, understated work, making the character charming and charismatic but in a muted, sort of sad way. When he's around someone, he puts everything into that interaction because he knows that he can't sustain any kind of relationship and will drift right back out of the other person's life just as easily as he drifted into it. As Gerry, Mendelsohn is outstanding, gradually exposing deeper and deeper layers of desperation as the film goes on. Gerry lives to lose, he just can't stop himself, and the saddest thing about him is not that he feels anguished over what his addiction is driving him to do, but that he seems to have just accepted that this is how he's going to live his life. He lies in the way that addicts do, thinking no further than that one step ahead to the lie that will get them what they need to get their fix, and lets himself believe that the person he's lying to believes what he's saying, but Mendelsohn conveys the sense that Gerry is being honest with himself in at least one way, that being that he knows that whatever he wins, he's going to find a way to lose. Mendelsohn's career has been on fire ever since his breakthrough performance in Animal Kingdom and his performance here is his best yet.

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