“Mississippi Grind” is a rare thing: a movie driven by characters rather than conventional plot. Free of conventions usually expected from its familiar premise, the movie freely rolls its dices along with its two genuine human characters. While they are different from each other in many ways, they share a common impulse between them, and it is absorbing to watch how the movie takes a chance with these interesting characters who turn out to be more complex than expected at first.
When we meet Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) at the beginning, this plain guy is listening to an audio guide on how to recognize signs from opponents during card play. He is a compulsive gambler, and we gradually gather how his life in a small city of Iowa has been hampered by his vice. His wife left him with their daughter several years ago, and he barely earns his living as a real estate agent, and he also has a serious debt problem with Sam (Alfre Woodard), a generous local loan shark who will consider using means harsher than her gentle words if her debtor continues to delay his payment. Like any chronic gamblers, Gerry believes he will get a chance to reverse his difficult situation someday if he keeps trying, but he is still on his losing streak as usual during his latest attempt at a local gambling spot.
And that is where he comes across Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a young amiable gambler who somehow affects Gerry’s current situation in a little positive way. They get acquainted more with each other when they happen to encounter each other again at a local bar, and Gerry sees a possible chance from Curtis’s better gambling skill as spending more time with him. When Curtis later suggests to his new friend a trip to New Orleans for more opportunities to grab money, Gerry accepts his suggestion without hesitation, and they are soon on the road to the South.
Now this looks like an average road movie, but “Mississippi Grind” often takes unexpected turns to focus more on its two heroes. While Gerry and Curtis stay around St. Louis for trying their luck and getting enough money for next gambles, they spend one night at the place belonging to Curtis’s ex-girlfriend Simone, and Sienna Miller is warm and sensitive as a practical woman who understands Curtis better than him. As they are together in her bedroom, it looks like they are still attracted to each other, and Curtis considers restarting their relationship, but then Simone calmly points out their reality.
In the meantime, Gerry spends his time with Simone’s friend/co-worker Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) in the living room, and there is a poignant moment when Gerry reveals a bit about himself in front of this young girl who is still hopeful about her life. As he plays a classic piece on the piano, not only Vanessa but also Simone and Curtis listen to the music, and we come to sense deep sadness and regret inside a man who has screwed up many things in his shabby life.
Never hiding the unpleasant sides of his deeply flawed character, Ben Mendelsohn, a wonderful Australian actor who has been advancing further since his terrific breakthrough turn in “Animal Kingdom” (2010), gives a rich nuanced performance full of human touches. As frequently driven by his compulsion, Gerry is his own worst enemy, and he knows it too well, but then he makes the same mistakes which ruined his life. During one card game, he makes an unwise decision although he is clearly aware of the odds in his circumstance, and that results in a big trouble for both him and Curtis. Mendelsohn is particularly good when Gerry visits his ex-wife Dorothy (Robin Weigert); he tries to be nice to his ex-wife who is now living with her daughter and second husband, but she bitterly reminds Gerry of how lousy he has been to their dear daughter, and we are not so surprised when he eventually lets her down again in a very hurtful way.
As the other half of the duo in the film, Ryan Reynolds gives an equally compelling performance as a smart, charismatic lad who is more thoughtful and prudent but may be not so different from his older partner. Reynolds is initially sincere and confident on the surface, but then he slowly reveals his character’s guarded attitude behind the carefree appearance, and you may come to have some doubts on the veracity of what he talks about himself, though he is surely a knowledgeable guy in case of trivial facts.
The movie is filled with the authentic sense of people and location, and some of its minor characters leave considerable impression on us as real characters with life. One card player who happens to confront with Gerry on the table is amusingly intense in his silent appearance which almost signifies nothing. You can sense many years of life experience from an aging gambler who appears during one short scene at a race track. When James Toback makes a brief appearance later in the story, you may be reminded that he once wrote the screenplay for “The Gambler” (1974), another movie about a compulsive gambler.
The directors/writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck drew my attention for the first time through “Half Nelson” (2006) and “Sugar” (2008), small but powerful films which deserve more attentions considering their underrated status. Like these two films, “Mississippi Grind” is unconventional in its own way, and this small gem thankfully stays away from clichés even during its finale. While I thought I knew how it would end, I was involved in what was at stake because I came to know and care about its characters through their journey, and then I was surprised and touched by how the movie arrived at its last scene. That is what a good character drama can do for us.