Review: Ben Mendelsohn bets on Ryan Reynolds in shaggy ‘Mississippi Grind’

PARK CITY – It feel like Altman is in the air these days.

There was, after all, a giant coffee table book about him that ended up under the trees of many a film nerd this Christmas, and little by little, his films are making their way onto Blu-ray, and Netflix just recently added a documentary that is a look back at his remarkable career. This fall also saw the release of “Inherent Vice,” and while that is an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel and very much a Paul Thomas Anderson film, there are more than a few echoes of Altman's “The Long Goodbye” in there.

Now we've got the latest film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who have had an uneven career as filmmakers so far. They co-wrote “Half Nelson” together, and then started co-directing as well. I sort of like “Sugar,” their first film as co-directors, but I hated “It's Kind Of A Funny Story” intensely. Everything about it rubbed me wrong. I had no idea what to expect from their new one, but within minutes of it starting, I settled into the groove that they had put together, and for the most part, I really admire the way this one works. It's a little shaggy, but, man, is it charming.

Gambling movies are hard to get right, but it feels like Boden and Fleck watched Altman's amazing “California Split” and decided they wanted to make a film like that. They didn't overtly borrow any story elements, but the very first scene of the film is a poker tournament where Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), and just the way they shoot the scene, the way we see things happening on a couple of different planes at the same time, the way the dialogue is mixed… it's obvious that they're fans of what Altman did.

The best thing about “Mississippi Grind” is the sort of ambling, loose structure of the thing. Gerry is a disaster, a guy who owes everyone money and who has sacrificed his family and his happiness to this crippling addiction of his, and when Curtis first sits down at the table, he comes across as a guy who is going to hustle everyone in the room. Curtis is non-stop patter, telling anecdotes, buying Gerry drinks, flirting with the waitress. It looks like it's going to be a rivalry at first, but that's not how it plays out at all. Gerry ends up coming in second for the night, and he finds himself enjoying Curtis's commentary. When Curtis leaves, Gerry gets robbed, stabbed in the gut in the process. Like many degenerate gamblers, Gerry is superstitious, and he becomes convinced that Curtis is his lucky charm.

That's a ticking clock that gets introduced and then promptly forgotten, but it's enough to posh Curtis and Gerry onto the road, ostensibly heading to a high-roller's game with a $25,000 buy-in. Really, though, it's just a portrait of these two deeply bruised guys who are each constantly running from themselves, and for a brief moment, they collide and fool one another into thinking things might get better. There is a sadness to the film, and just when you think the film is trying to smooth the rough edges off of what a loser Gerry is, he finds a new way to disappoint people. Just when it looks like Curtis is being played cute, they peel back some new layer that reveals him as so much less than he pretends.

The supporting cast is uniformly good, with Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton scoring big in a prolonged sequence in the middle of the movie, and Robin Weigert has one scene that is particularly rough. There's also a pretty great cameo from James Toback, who understands the world of the degenerate gambler as well as anyone in film. His movie “The Gambler” was remade this past Christmas, of course, and while I liked a lot of things about that movie, it never really committed to the darkness inherent to the premise. Here, the film flirts with redemption for these guys, but Boden and Fleck are smart enough to know that even a big win won't fill whatever hole it is that they have in their lives.

Ryan Reynolds always seems to be more interesting when he's in smaller films, and I think he's had one of the strangest careers of anyone working right now. It's rare that he gets a role that lets him be sharp and funny but that also asks him to play something real and honest. He's very good here, and he layers in just enough self-loathing here to make it clear that Curtis talks as much as he does because he's afraid of what happens when he stops. Ben Mendelsohn is always excellent in supporting roles, but as a lead, he proves to be equally adept. There's no ego in the work he does here. He doesn't care if Gerry looks good or if he's cool or if he's the hero or if he's likable. Instead, he just plays Gerry as a guy who struggles with his own nature, who has goodness in him but who is afraid that he's no good overall. So much of the film is just the two of them together that if their chemistry didn't work, there'd be no point in the whole thing. I think they each push the other in unexpected directions. Mendelsohn's funnier here than normal, while Reynolds seems to respond to the darkness that drives Mendelsohn.

Handsomely photographed by the enormously talented Andrij Parekh, “Mississippi Grind” etches a vision of the south defined by both familiar iconography and out of the way back corners and dives. The score is by Scott Bomar, whose work on “Hustle & Flow” and “Soul Men” and “Black Snake Moan,” as well as a gospel-driven film called “Memphis” all prove just how much Bomar understands the sound of the region, and there is an authenticity to the sonic landscape that these guys navigate.

In the end, “Mississippi Grind” is slight, and that's fine. It's certainly not trying to be a bigger film and they don't try to turn this into a “will-they-win-or-not?” cliche. It is a film of admirable restraint, but it also seems to be almost actively afraid to build to any kind of payoff. I hope Boden and Fleck continue to work in this vein, because it suits them. It feels like they're well aware of what went wrong with their last film, and they appear to be heading in the right direction. This one feels like it has a real pulse, like they loves these guys, flaws and all, and they're not afraid to lay bare the worst corners of who these people are, even at the expense of trying to build a clever story.

One thing “Mississippi Grind” has in spades is soul, and that's a better bet than narrative mechanics any day.

“Mississippi Grind” is still seeking distribution, and I hope someone picks it up before the end of the festival.