Review: Mississippi Grind (Sundance 2015)
PLOT: Two down-on-their-luck gamblers (Ryan Reynolds & Ben Mendelsohn) hit the road, embarking on a tour of all the seediest casinos and private games the American South has to offer in an effort to change their luck and build a bankroll.
REVIEW: Isn't it odd how genres seem to come and go in phases? I mean, since when has the gambling movie been so popular that in the last two months we've gotten the premiere of not one, not two, but three full-on gambling dramas? MISSISSIPPI GRIND follows hot on the heels of the recent remake of THE GAMBLER and the Jason Statham vehicle WILD CARD (a remake of the 1986 Burt Reynolds movie HEAT). Like those two, this one takes a page from another gambling classic, Robert Altman's CALIFORNIA SPLIT, albeit unofficially (outside of the similar first act the two movies go in wildly different directions).
Happily the third time really is the charm as MISSISSIPPI GRIND, while not perfect, has both GAMBLER and WILD CARD beat in that as an indie it doesn't have to compromise the inherently seedy premise but tacking on a goofy ending (THE GAMBLER) or action scenes (WILD CARD). Rather, it's a full-on mood piece as Reynolds and Mendelsohn's characters slink across the south, realistically going from one extreme to another in their fortunes.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is a strong return to form for co-directors/screenwriters Ryan Fleck and Anna Borden, handily bouncing back from the failure of IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, and picking up on the promise of HALF-NELSON and SUGAR. They're not the only ones this proves to be a comeback for. MISSISSIPPI GRIND also happens to be the best thing Ryan Reynolds has done in years (but not for a lack of trying) and playing a motor-mouthed gambler who's like Van Wilder with an addiction, Reynolds plays to all of his strengths. He has the look of a high-roller, and the swagger of a mental case, but the film often pulls back the curtains during quieter scenes, such as a really well-done sequence where he visits his on-again/off-again fling (a call girl played by Sienna Miller) and another when he visits his blues singer mom in a dive bar. Reynolds really shows what he can do here, and if he's been miscast in the past, here he fills the role to perfection.
Ben Mendelsohn, who routinely pops up in key roles to steal movies like THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and KILLING THEM SOFTLY finally gets to play the lead in an American movie, and he gives the film the same edge that he gives his European star-parts, such as the crazy-underrated STARRED-UP. While he's the older man to Reynolds' younger stud, the roles actually seem reversed, with him benefiting from the young man's confidence, even if he proves to be maniacally unpredictable in his gambling habits. What's interesting is that Mendelsohn, who's so often unsympathetic in films, gets to play such a nuanced, three-dimensional character, with a tender scene involving him and a young call-girl (Analeigh Tipton) unfolded in a way you wouldn't necessarily think given what we'd seen of the character up to this point.
While I'd stop short of calling MISSISSIPPI GRIND excellent, the fact is it's quite good and should be the kind of film that winds up being appreciated by a wide audience. It's stylish, seedy without being unseemly, and very evocative of a certain kind of lifestyle, with the beautifully assembled blues soundtrack and dialogue that's witty without being too stylized a factor which has killed many a gambling film. At the very least, it should allow audiences to see a different side of Mendelsohn, and fully appreciate how effective Reynolds can be in the right role. Hopefully this will be a sleeeper hit.