An actor who could have easily been typecast as a villain after his terrifying turn in 2010’s Animal Kingdom, Ben Mendelsohn has instead appeared in varied roles that constantly show new sides to his abilities. In The Place Beyond The Pines, for example, he had a small yet perfectly-formed role alongside Ryan Gosling as a gentle small-time crook. He was great in the British prison drama, Starred Up. He played a wonderfully camp viceroy in Ridley Scott’s Old Testament epic, Exodus: Gods And Kings.
Mendelsohn’s really on form in Mississippi Grind. It’s a two-handed road trip drama with Ryan Reynolds as the other hand, and it’s remarkable just how well the two one another. Mendelsohn’s Gerry is a note-perfect creation: a 40-something, divorced real estate agent trying to sell houses in a run-down part of Iowa. Gerry’s also a gambling addict, and from his ruffled hair to his battered coat, you can tell he’s been on a losing streak for quite a while.
Ryan Reynolds’ Curtis, on the other hand, is Gerry’s polar opposite: 10 years younger, charismatic, an expert raconteur, a veritable clothes horse. The pair hit it off almost immediately, Gerry seemingly in thrall to Curtis’s tall tales about a gambler down in New Orleans who won a tiger from a millionaire Arab on the turn of a card. Why does Curtis seem equally beguiled by Gerry? No matter. With Curtis a free spirit who drifts from place to place and Gerry stony broke and in hock to a politely sinister loan shark, the pair head off on a road trip in search of fortune – the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Gerry and Curtis’s lives revolve around games. They play darts, they bet on dogs and horses. They play poker and craps and slot machines. They hustle towering basketball players in shabby courts with mixed results. The nearer to New Orleans they get, the more we learn about Gerry and his sorry history; his estranged wife, the daughter he hasn’t seen in years.
There’s a reflective tone to Mississippi Grind, written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar), its study of addiction and self-destruction recalling Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. The sense of desolation runs deep, from its settings – grimy bars, motels, casinos and grill houses – to the exhausted look in Gerry’s eyes. But the sombre air’s leavened by the duo’s friendship and a light, natural streak of humour.
Gerry’s a forlorn creature, but Mendelsohn gives him a puppyish likeability, even when he’s plumbing the depths of his own dignity. Curtis is more aloof, perhaps necessarily so; he’s such an accomplished poker player, we’re not always quite sure what his game plan is. Can we trust him? Can Gerry trust him? Nevertheless, it’s a thoughtful performance from Reynolds, one that plays on his movie star looks but still possesses a certain rawness and vulnerability. It’s to the film’s benefit that there’s an easy chemistry between Mendelsohn and Reynolds; there’s no sense that one is trying to wrest the focus of a scene from the other.
As a character piece, Mississippi Grind is more honest and nuanced than The Gambler, Rupert Wyatt’s similarly-themed drama from earlier this year. Where that film couldn’t help but showboat, Fleck and Boden’s film is less grandiose. The glibness of Wahlberg’s leading turn in The Gambler is entirely absent from Mendelsohn or Reynolds’ performances. Where Wahlberg wore shades and cut us off, Curtis and Gerry can’t hide their inner turmoil.
There’s a great moment where Gerry plays Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie on the piano to a young escort (Analeigh Tipton, who’s great in this whole scene), and says to her, simply, “I have money problems.” She replies, “I’m going to do something with my life.”
It’s a confession, a sigh of sadness. It’s superbly understated.
Mississippi Grind is a believable, gently funny depiction of two lost souls who are united by the belief that what they’re looking for is a big win to dig them out of their financial hell; what they’re really looking for is the next hit – the rush of adrenaline they can only find from the roll of the dice.
Mississippi Grind is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd October.
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