Rated R | Time: 1:48
Even if you are not a sucker, as I am, for any movie about gambling with an American geographical reference in the title — “California Split,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Atlantic City” — you will find a lot to like about “Mississippi Grind,” a low-key road movie written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
Who can resist a soundtrack full of well-chosen blues and country-and-western songs, many of which offer further testimony to the place of cards, poker chips, dice and racehorses in our national mythology? There is also a cameo from James Toback, screenwriter of “The Gambler” (the good one, from 1974, with James Caan), and as such a kind of tutelary deity of long odds and risky bets.
As the story drifts southward from Iowa toward New Orleans, stopping in St. Louis, Memphis and Little Rock, it’s hard not to be swept along on currents of wistful patriotism. In America, at least according to the rough romanticism this movie embraces, even the bad stuff — loneliness, regret, lousy poker hands, cheap booze, unpayable debts — can make you feel good. Even a sad song can bring you joy. A game can be fun even when you lose.
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Winning is better, of course. That’s an article of faith, an ideological tenet, a campaign slogan. And Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) and Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), two guys whose friendship begins at a poker table, want to believe that they’re winners. Curtis, at first, seems to have the better shot. Gerry describes him as “a handsome leprechaun” (a pretty good characterization of Reynolds, it must be said), and there is indeed something magical about him. Curtis lights up a sleepy card room with jokes and wild stories, hooking Gerry so quickly with his charm that you suspect some kind of con must be afoot.
Gerry, with his creased face, his tentative manner and his wobbly chin, seems like an easy mark. A divorced real estate agent who lives with his cat, Gerry owes money to the friendly neighborhood loan shark (Alfre Woodard), and to a lot of other people, too. Of course, like most problem gamblers, he’s one lucky break away from making everything come around right. When the truth is inconvenient, he’s full of excuses, evasions and outright lies. He revises his winnings upward, his losses downward, and at one point claims that a disastrous hand of Texas Hold ‘em was a big win. It almost was. It should have been.
Gambling is where the iron laws of probability collide with the human propensity for magical thinking. Gambling movies tend to stack the deck in favor of the miraculous. Can you believe that long shot came in a winner? That ace showed up on the river? That seven landed again? Maybe not, but what’s the harm in pretending? Gerry is a walking answer to that question, but never mind. “Mississippi Grind” indulges in some of the fantasies of the genre without sacrificing credibility. There’s plenty to see here that’s grubby and sad, and a lot more going on than just games of chance.
There is, above all, a two-handed demonstration of actorly skill. Reynolds, whose ventures outside Hollywood leading-man territory have been admirable if not always successful (see “The Voices” and “Self/less”), uses his natural likability as a kind of disguise. You can’t always tell what’s sincerity and what’s misdirection, and after a while he lets you see that Curtis isn’t entirely sure himself. Gerry, who at first seems merely pathetic, gradually reveals layers of guile, pride, gentleness and fury, and Mendelsohn shows himself, once again, to be an almost infinitely resourceful actor.
Fleck and Boden, whose previous collaborations include “Half Nelson,” “Sugar” and “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” have consistently refused to chain themselves or their characters to the machinery of plot. “Mississippi Grind” has a loose, behind-the-beat rhythm. It slows down, wanders off, hangs out and kibitzes, confident that the company, the scenery, the music and a few sneakily profound themes will hold your interest.
The filmmakers and the actors have a keen ear for the vicissitudes of male friendship, for the dance of bluster, affection and rivalry that can bind two guys together. The movie is also wise about the different ways men can be messed up about women, without losing sight of the individuality of the women they encounter. These include Gerry’s ex-wife (Robin Weigert), who lives in Arkansas, and two women in St. Louis: Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton), who is kind to Gerry; and Simone (Sienna Miller), who is either the love of Curtis’ life or a knowing patsy in his long emotional grift.
When a climactic sequence of events arises — big bets, revealed secrets, a flurry of punches — it all feels fresh, surprising and plausible. “Mississippi Grind” itself may be a bit of a throwback to the lived-in, character-driven, landscape-besotted films of the 1970s, but it’s less a pastiche or an homage than the cinematic equivalent of a classic song, expertly covered.
A.O. Scott, The New York Times