BEHIND the gambler movie clichés is an engaging film built on winning performances, writes Alistair Harkness
Mississippi Grind (15) | Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck | Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodward | Rating: ****
Given that gambling movies deal mainly in characters addicted to winning and losing big when the stakes are high, it seems like a perverse joke on the part of husband-and-wife filmmaking team Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden to kick off their new gambling drama Mississippi Grind with an image of a rainbow. Whether they’re showing their hand early by suggesting this film will have a happy ending or merely presenting a bluff to keep from despairing at the prospect of another story about people being destroyed by their addictions is not something to be divulged in a review. Stylistically, however, the film is a little more in keeping with their Oscar-nominated inspirational-teacher-on-crack drama Half Nelson than their previous film, the irritating mental illness quirk-fest It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
That’s a good thing – and so too is having Ben Mendelsohn in a leading role. The Australian actor has been grounding dramatic fare with his heavyweight presence since breaking through in Animal Kingdom back in 2010 and, after last year’s stellar turn in Starred Up, it’s about time he got a shot at bringing his lived-in charisma to a main part. He plays Gerry, whose roughshod face and too-hopeful eyes tell you almost all you need to know about the way his luck has panned out over the years. When we first see him in the midst of a dimly lit backroom card game – slumped over a hand, drinking house whisky, trying not to lose but unable to walk away – he looks like a Bruce Springsteen song in the making. Indeed, this is the sort of guy who is so luckless he’ll get stabbed for not having any cash, yet still he puts his faith in self-help guides and good fortune totems so arbitrary his belief in their efficacy seems to sustain him through any and all hardship.
His latest good luck charm isn’t an object or a ritual, however, but a person: a charismatic, smooth-talking drifter called Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) who rocks up one night at the tables and all but seduces Gerry with his tales of big money card games and his breezy attitude to the pressures of poker. Gerry calls him a “handsome leprechaun” and, with his own real estate job going nowhere and his accrued debts about to be called in by people whose patience has long ago worn thin, he begs Curtis to stake him. Curtis, it turns out, knows of a big money card game run by a legendary gambler called Tony Roundtree (played by the filmmaker James Toback, a nice little homage to his status as the screenwriter of the original James Caan-starring version of The Gambler). Gerry is convinced he can win and so they embark on a road trip from Iowa to New Orleans, hitting every gambling joint along the course of the Mississippi in an effort to raise the buy-in fee.
Quite what Curtis is getting out of this relationship is a little harder to see, particularly as Gerry’s delusions turn even big losses into almost-wins. Indeed, Gerry is so tragic-seeming – a bundle of manic energy forever on the verge of a melancholic crash – that you keep waiting for Curtis to royal-flush him out of whatever metaphorical game they’re playing. Boden and Fleck certainly play off that low-level tension, using it to take the film in unexpected directions. There’s more to Gerry, for instance, than meets the eye, his non-sexual dalliance with a young “hostess” (Analeigh Tipton) hinting at a gentleness buried beneath his addictions that might make him a good man, if only he could get out of the way of his habit. But this is no simple redemption story either and as good as Mendelsohn is here, it is Reynolds’ casting that might actually be the film’s trump card. The actor’s easygoing charisma – that likability that has allowed him to cruise through mainstream movies without leaving much of an impression, good or bad – serves him well as we gradually learn that the surfeit of charm Curtis exudes masks the extent to which he feels lost in the world. Whether he’s hitting on beautiful women, pining for the one to whom he can’t quite commit (played by Sienna Miller), staking his happiness on a dream he has no intention trying to fulfill, or basking a little too much in Gerry’s easily-won admiration, Curtis is, in his own way, just as much of a parasite. He craves human contact, even when that contact is a fist to the face.
Through it all, Boden and Fleck deserve credit for keeping things credible. Even as they raise the dramatic and literal stakes for a finale that flirts with preposterousness, the film doesn’t sell out its characters. Instead it rewards them – and us – with arcs that refuse to end where you expect them to.