The moody, measured intelligence and exceptional skill with actors long evinced by filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson,” “Sugar”) once again serves them well in “Mississippi Grind,” a bittersweet, beautifully textured road movie that plays like a conscious throwback to the lost souls and open highways of 1970s American cinema. Starring a never-better Ben Mendelsohn as a desperate poker player who embarks on a high-stake gambling trip through the South with his personal good-luck charm (Ryan Reynolds) in tow, this low-key but emotionally rich journey may not deliver the narrative oomph that some audiences may crave from their tales of addiction and redemption, spelling modest commercial impact. Still, discerning arthouse-goers will warm to the film’s superb performances, haunting sense of place and willingness to meander, as well as its sly rumination on the mysterious interplay of fate and friendship in shaping an individual’s destiny.
Arriving just in time to wash away the unfortunate memory of Paramount’s Mark Wahlberg drama “The Gambler,” “Mississippi Grind” gives us, by contrast, a protagonist whom we believe completely as a man consumed by his addiction, yet also complicated enough to be defined by more than one layer of identity. As played with extraordinary control (but also crackles of live-wire intensity) by Australian actor Mendelsohn, Gerry, an unhappy 44-year-old from Dubuque, Iowa, isn’t the sort to lay all his cards on the table right away. The opening setup of Fleck and Boden’s script — in which a handsome gent in his 30s named Curtis (Reynolds) strides into a casino, plops himself down at a poker table and talks up a genial storm as he buys Gerry a bourbon — shows the latter man doing little more than quietly reacting, wondering exactly how to respond to this friendly, charismatic stranger in his midst.
Before long the two men are bonding happily over booze and cards, racetracks and billiards, and gradually unveiling their different histories. When he’s not sleepwalking his way through his job as a real-estate agent, Gerry is gambling (or listening to endless audio recordings with advice on how to up his game), a ruinously expensive hobby that has resulted in a pile of debts overseen by a loan shark (Alfre Woodard). As we learn later, Gerry also has a failed marriage and a daughter he never sees or talks to. Curtis, by contrast, seems to be a man of few attachments or emotional baggage, a dynamic, free-spirited risk taker whose current hot streak seems to shake something loose in Gerry, especially when his own performance seems to improve in Curtis’ company.
Convinced that Curtis is a good omen, Gerry persuades the guy to join him as he gambles his way along the Mississippi River down to a big poker game in New Orleans with a hefty $25,000 buy-in; Curtis helps him out by staking him $2,000 to start. Their first stop is St. Louis, where Curtis takes the opportunity to reconnect with an on-and-off-again g.f., Simone (Sienna Miller), who dresses the men up for their visit to a riverboat casino, and whose shy friend Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) forms a fleeting but precious emotional connection with Gerry.
From there it’s on to Memphis, where Gerry’s luck takes an unexpected (by him) turn for the worst, followed by an unplanned detour to Little Rock, where an ill-advised reunion with his ex-wife (Robin Weigert, piercing in a one-scene role) tells us everything we need to know about the long trail of failure and heartache that’s led him to this point. And there’s still more ahead, including Gerry’s eventual arrival in New Orleans and subsequent meeting with an old associate of Curtis’ (well played by James Toback, in a nice nod to the original “Gambler” that falls right in line with the directors’ extended ’70s-cinema homage).
As ever, Fleck and Boden demonstrate a precise, unshowy mastery of place and atmosphere. Eschewing the flashier, over-exposed gambling capitals like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, they capture a lingering sense of abandoned Americana in shots of boarded-up storefronts and old casino facades — all filmed in beautifully muted grays by d.p. Andrij Parekh (whose languid camera movements often feel reminiscent of an earlier era) and set to a soundtrack bursting with blues and country. Yet for all the impressive authenticity of the various settings, it’s Gerry and Curtis’ continually evolving push-pull dynamic that deservedly takes centerstage here, in a picture driven far less by narrative incident than by its gently pulsing comic undercurrents and vivid contemplation of character.
Fleck and Boden have long demonstrated a fond fascination with strugglers, strivers, misfits and perennial outsiders, whether it was Ryan Gosling’s strung-out high-school teacher in “Half Nelson,” Algenis Perez Soto’s determined Dominican baseball star in “Sugar,” or even the psych-ward buddies played by Keir Gilchrist and Zach Galifianakis in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” To varying degrees, both Gerry and Curtis are slaves to the self-destructive, can’t-lose mentality that fueled any number of gambling pictures (particularly Robert Altman’s “California Split,” a clear conceptual influence here). We see Gerry sink to new lows throughout, but he’s never more wildly alive than when he suddenly announces, in defiance of every prudent impulse, that he’s going all in. The addiction has exacted a subtler toll on Curtis, who’s obviously more put-together and has far superior judgment, but it’s nonetheless visible in the rootless existence that he occasionally yearns to throw aside.
One of the pleasures of “Mississippi Grind” is the way it shows us Gerry and Curtis renegotiating the parameters of their relationship as the picture progresses; each one deceives the other at different points in an attempt to maintain the upper hand, but they always come back together, drawn not only by their shared compulsion but also by genuine mutual affection. That steadily pulsing emotional core is built into the beautifully harmonized turns by Mendelsohn, stamping out every trace of showiness in complete service to one of his richest roles to date, and Reynolds, tempering his silver-tongued charisma with quiet notes of melancholy.
For all the film’s pleasurably unhurried narrative rhythms, the final 20-minute stretch seems to suffer from an excess of possible endings, a flaw that nevertheless makes a certain kind of sense: Every reversal of fortune, we realize, can be outdone by another, stranding the characters in a twisty, neverending cycle of winning and (more often) losing. Intentionally or not, the directors seem to have buried at least a few clever visual clues throughout the picture — the Gateway Arch of St. Louis mirroring a rainbow glimpsed in the opening shot — which raise the possibility that, as Gerry and Curtis dare to believe, the unseen hand of Fate may indeed be guiding them toward success. Wrapping matters on a tactfully open-ended note, Fleck and Boden leave it to their characters and the audience to determine that answer for themselves.