The writing-directing duo of Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck have built their filmography on stories about capable people who undermine their own brilliance at every available turn. Returning with their first feature since 2010’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Bowden and Fleck have crafted another story about well-intentioned failure, this time about someone in the throes of a gambling addiction. Mississippi Grind may not be the soulful portrait of defeat as Sugar, their 2008 baseball drama, but it’s still an entertaining and engaging movie somewhat reminiscent of The Hustler and its unofficial sequel The Color of Money.
The film opens with Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a real estate agent with a gambling problem, sitting in on a poker tournament in an Iowa casino. He’s a student of the game, adept at noticing all the little tells of his opponents. Gerry’s life is about to go through a sudden change when Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) joins the table. Curtis is this gruff, talkative fellow, and the two quickly become friends following the tournament. Curtis lives this kind of life of the road, spewing half-baked philosophical notions while searching for the best in people. When some of Gerry’s old gambling debts are due for collection, Curtis and Gerry hit the road, en route to a private poker match with a $25,000 buy-in. Since neither have that kind of money, Curtis will stake (put up the money for) Gerry as they hit every casino and card game between Iowa and New Orleans. But for all of Gerry’s talent in reading his opponents, his greatest weakness is his inability to turn away in the face defeat, or even victory. It’s a weakness that might drag the duo down.
Mississippi Grind is anchored by another wonderful performance by Ben Mendelsohn, who is quickly becoming one of the most captivating actors working today. He fills Gerry with a quiet arrogance in moments and an even more quiet sense of defeat in others. But the real shocker in the film is the performance by Ryan Reynolds, who is finally given some depth behind his charming snark. As written by Bowden and Fleck, there’s a subdued sadness that all his boastful quips are designed to hide, and Reynolds sells it in what may be the finest performance of his career. Aside from a couple of brief supporting roles, including Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton, Mississippi Grind is solely focused on the relationship between Gerry and Curtis.
Bowden and Fleck keep their film modestly paced, allowing our understanding of the characters to be fleshed out first before placing them in strenuous situations. But the blues and soul music that makes up most of the film’s soundtrack keep that deliberate pace feeling cool and calm. But Bowden and Fleck do somewhat undermine themselves with the film’s ending, which is just a little too neat and clean for everything that transpired before it.
There’s humor, friendship, and tragedy running through Mississippi Grind. This slightly under 2-hour road trip with Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds is more enjoyable than it isn’t, and its most glaring flaws come in such a late and relatively minor fashion that they’re easily glossed over. Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck continue to make fascinating character studies buoyed by strong performances. Taste is subjective, and each time we go to the movies we’re taking a bit of a gamble. Mississippi Grind is just a safe bet.