Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) channels an irresistible hangdog charm as washed up gambler Gerry. Estranged from his wife and daughter he’s carving out a low life cruising the back room card games, racetracks and neon lit bars of Iowa. Las Vegas this ain’t. But that’s the point of directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s film – the pair also made Half Nelson (featuring an Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling). Frustrated with the lack of progress with another project they conceived Mississippi Grind as a lo-fi two hander with a lean and mobile crew ready to hit the freeways using real bars and casinos as their sets. Fleck says their use of “smaller, grittier, more textured spaces” was a deliberate ploy to take us away from the staple gambling movie tropes of Vegas and Atlantic City and bring us closer to a story played out like a piece of cinema verite. They’ve come up trumps and deal the audience a royal flush.
Inspired by, and clearly made as homage to, Robert Altman’s 1974 film California Split – which starred George Segal and Elliott Gould as a pair of gambling obsessed barflys – the smell of bourbon oozes from the screen. We’re eavesdropping at the bar when Gerry meets Ryan Reynolds’ charismatic drifter Curtis and the pair bond during a late night poker session. He begins to see Curtis as his lucky charm and with the younger man sensing the opportunity to turn a buck now Gerry is back on a roll, Curtis stakes him two grand and the drifting duo embark on a road trip through the Huck Finn country of Memphis, their destination New Orleans.
“I like women too much to marry one,” jokes Curtis. But Sienna Miller shines in a supporting role as the working girl who steals his heart. Simone could be the one to lure him from the romance of the road. For Curtis “the journey is the destination” but Simone quips, “That’s just a bumper sticker!” The snappy dialogue makes this world believable and, as with Altman’s film, characters may talk over each other but the narrative here holds focus on hopes of redemption for Gerry. You might be used to seeing Mendelsohn snarling his way through crime thrillers like Killing Me Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines but his subtle performance here highlights the skills of an actor whose eyes alone convey a raft of emotions. Even when Gerry is hypnotized by a tape he plays in his car to teach himself new poker skills, his bloodshot gaze offers a murky window onto the frailty of the human heart.
The bluesy soundtrack is perfect for a rambling story of lost souls trying to find themselves on the road. Living each day on the roll of a dice, entering their world is a laid back pleasure that comes up aces. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.