Special movies know their identity and goal. They may not aspire to win the Oscar gold or the top spot at the box office but instead just register long enough for the viewer to smile at the credits and feel like their time wasn’t wasted. Mississippi Grind, about a pair of Gamblers working multiple joints up and down the famous riverfront, is a special treat because it aims to please and features original characters.
You may think you know Ben Mendelsohn’s Gerry and Ryan Reynolds’ Curtis from previous cinematic stories, but the truth is they are two of a kind. A pair of jokers working the clubs until the queens demand they return home. Two imperfect souls who are very good at being “the guy from nowhere who can play poker” and not very good at being a regular person. Gerry is down on his luck and owes everybody in the Midwest when he runs into Curtis, a good luck charm in the flesh at a game. Gerry loses all his money but finds a partner in crime in the younger Curtis. They hit the road and work the Mississippi River and all the highs and lows it has to offer. St. Louis, New Orleans, Alabama and Little Rock shine a light on our anti-heroes and give the film a beautifully gritty backdrop to deal off for its sharp 108 minute running time.
Writing/Directing tandem Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck basically toss the audience in the backseat of this guy and let them watch Gerry and Curtis ride the wave that every gambling junkie knows well. Big wins followed by little losses and the impulse to keep playing and the desire to withstand the greed that lurks inside any human soul. It’s all about knowing when to get out and run away clean and Gerry doesn’t know that mark at all. Curtis is the smarter player but that doesn’t make him any more even keeled. Gambling is a drug and it’s treated more honestly here than in other gambling movies. The tale is unpredictable without being depressing.
While there are other actors collecting a paycheck here, Mendelsohn and Reynolds own the road here. Mendelsohn, the ruffled feather of a character actor whose face you will know from films like Killing Them Softly and A Place Beyond The Pines, officially arrives in a leading role he has long deserved. With eyes carrying miles upon miles of sadness, the Aussie thespian makes you want to get to know him.
Reynolds easily gives his best performance to date and that’s saying something because he’s been good before. Here he settles into a role that fits all his abilities and pushes a few buttons audiences haven’t seen before. The fast talking comic maestro can fly back many roles on the seat of his charm but here he unveils a depth previously unreleased. You won’t be quick to trust Curtis and that’s because Reynolds snake eyes gaze keeps you guessing about where he truly comes from and his motives. It’s a real performance, similar to the one Fleck and Boden pulled from a yet unnoticed Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson.
Mississippi Grind does build to a huge final bet and while the climax is predictable, the resolution of the film is where is the cold center of a career gambler is revealed. The final few shots are just perfect. They leave you wanting more, having a will to spend a few more hours with these roughneck sinners who can’t quit the thrill.
It won’t win awards or be in theaters for long, but if you are needing a homemade batch of cinematic pleasure without the bells and whistles of a big budget showy flick, pay this movie’s tab and take it on for a stretch.