★ ★ ★ ½
Divorced and dejected, the terminally unlucky Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) drifts through life in Iowa as a part-time real-estate agent and full-time gambler. In debt to just about every shark in town, Gerry can only view his desperate situation through the lens of his addiction: He just needs one big score and he’ll be fine. One night at a casino, charismatic drifter Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) sits across the poker table from him. Curtis embodies everything Gerry wishes he could be: quick-witted, sharply dressed, and most importantly, proficient at gambling. The two later reconvene at a bar and bond over countless whiskeys with old war stories of their biggest successes. The duo keep up this routine for the next few nights, as Gerry keeps winning big at the casino each outing. He’s convinced that the mysterious Curtis is his good-luck charm and ticket back to zero debt.
As Curtis prepares to pack his bags and continue on his journey, Gerry pleads to tag along. His interest piqued by his peculiar new friend, Curtis agrees to lead them to a big-time buy-in poker tournament in New Orleans, hitting all of the old gambling towns along the way. As the men blaze a trail through the heart of the country, both of their checkered pasts come back to haunt them, threatening to stop the trip dead in its tracks.
Gerry’s drives and desires always come back to the unholy dollar. There are some painful scenes in Mississippi Grind, including a stop in Little Rock, AR, to visit his ex-wife, that emphasize just how deeply he has sunk into the throes of addiction. However, the motives of the charming Curtis are harder to discern. He shows a longing to reunite with his old flame, a sex worker named Simone (Sienna Miller), but he sleeps around as the duo get closer to New Orleans. He takes pity on the hapless Gerry at points, but neglects to turn the mirror of judgment back upon himself and his hollow, nomadic life.
The Aussie-born Mendelsohn has established himself as a premier character actor in the last decade, with standout roles in The Place Beyond the Pines, The Dark Knight Rises, and the Netflix original series Bloodline, so his impressive turn as Gerry should come as no surprise. And Reynolds has never been better than he is here as the freewheeling Curtis, showing the necessary acting chops to take on a complex personality. Grind might have been just a standard odd-couple-on-the-road flick, were it not for the palpable onscreen chemistry between these two.
The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are no strangers to dramas about addiction: Half Nelson, the duo’s gritty 2006 debut feature about a drug-abusing inner-city teacher (Ryan Gosling), was another standout character study covering similar subject matter. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh is also a holdover from Half Nelson, and his lensing of the unseen pockets of the Southern United States provides the backdrop for the desperation of Mississippi Grind. Paired with a brilliant soundtrack of country and blues, Parekh gives moviegoers a visceral look at the fading gambling towns along the eponymous river, a slice of Americana often overlooked or wholly ignored. The usual shots of glitzy Vegas casino floors, a hallmark of American gambling films, are replaced here with scenes of aging men, cigarettes in hand, heaped over a blackjack table in a dimly lit room.
Mississippi Grind is suffused with an air of melancholy — while the two main characters are depicted as seeking a temporary reprieve from their struggles, it seems likely that the vicious cycle of addiction will continue long after this snippet of their story is told. As a character-driven narrative, the plot unfolds effortlessly while the film’s focus remains trained on the two protagonists. Or as Reynolds’ character remarks repeatedly, “The journey is the destination.” That couldn’t be truer for the movie as a whole, as the dynamic performances of Mendelsohn and Reynolds make Mississippi Grind a sure bet.