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A Sure Bet: ‘Mississippi Grind’

A Sure Bet: ‘Mississippi Grind’

Inspired by
films of the 1970s like California Split,
The Gambler
and Scarecrow, 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.

        

 

 

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