Inspired by films of the 1970s like California Split, The Gambler andScarecrow, Mississippi Grind is a character study in the form of a road trip, expertly guided by writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who brought us such notable indie films as Half-Nelson and Sugar. Like the films that inspired it, their new effort is more about the journey than the destination, and sparked by two exceptional performances.
Ben Mendelsohn plays a compulsive gambler who has let his addiction destroy every aspect of his life—including a marriage and even a relationship with a not-unsympathetic loan shark in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. Like most men in his situation he has become a congenital liar, to cover his tracks and delude himself (if only temporarily) that things aren’t as bad as they really are.
When an outgoing, confident poker player (Ryan Reynolds) crosses his path, he becomes convinced that this newcomer can change his luck. He persuades Reynolds to join him on a road trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he can redeem himself in a high-stakes card game—if Reynolds will stake him.
Thus begins an odyssey through St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock (a side trip), and finally, New Orleans. Along the way, the characters’ newfound friendship is repeatedly tested. Mendelsohn is hopelessly self-destructive, and as it turns out, Reynolds has his share of hang-ups, too; he’s just better at hiding them.
Rich in flavor and atmosphere, Mississippi Grind offers telling glimpses of the people who populate bars, racetracks, and low-end gambling establishments in the South. And in spite of their often-reckless behavior, we respond to the neediness of its protagonists. We want to see them succeed in true Hollywood-movie fashion, even though logic tells us that it isn’t likely they will.
Fleck and Boden (who serves as editor as well as writing and directing with her longtime partner) take their time and trust that the audience will go along for the ride. I gladly did, although I was fooled more than once about which scene would conclude their story in the final New Orleans segment.
The real reward is watching the two leading actors. Mendelsohn delivers a brilliant, multifaceted performance as a pathetic loser who strives to put on a good face for the world. Reynolds’ natural charm is put to great use as a low-rent “player” who hides more than he reveals. Both actors rely on nuance to communicate the many facets of their characters. Small but meaningful roles are well filled by Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Robin Weigert, and Alfre Woodard. In a nod to the films that spurred this one, writer-director James Toback (The Gambler) makes a brief appearance near the end of the picture.
With its relaxed approach and lack of fireworks, Mississippi Grind may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it absorbing—and refreshing.