The gambling drama — a genre that ranges from Robert Altman’s California Split to David Mamet’s House of Games to John Dahl’s Rounders — often walks a fine line between focusing on the minutiae of the game and observing the humans playing it. There’s drama in the game, to be sure — and one sign of a world-class filmmaker is the ability to convey said drama without requiring that viewers be familiar with the game itself. But the real story always lies in the people playing out in the “real world,” where messiness rules and winning and losing mean very different things. Mississippi Grind, from the writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story), luxuriates in that real-world messiness. It’s as much a movie about the gamble of friendship as it is about friends gambling.
The film opens on an image of a majestic rainbow spread out over a stretch of Iowa farmland. The memory of that rainbow recurs throughout — a constant point of reference and shared kinship for mopey gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendehlson) and fast-talking extrovert Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who meet one night over a sad, busy poker table. Gerry works in real estate, but he lives to gamble: He’s a decent player but has a tendency to keep going until he loses everything, and he now owes money to Sam (Alfre Woodard, making the most of her one scene), a smiling, soft-talking loan shark who’ll buy you a burger and make pleasant chitchat before sending her henchmen after you. Curtis, meanwhile, prefers to watch: “I like people,” he says when Gerry asks him why he even bothers to hang around gambling tables. There’s more to it than that, of course. Curtis can also read people, and he knows Gerry needs him; just look at the way Gerry’s sad, pursed little face lights up whenever Curtis shows up in his life. The two men enter an agreement: They’ll travel down to New Orleans, hitting every gaming spot along the way, with Curtis staking Gerry a couple of thousand dollars. Gerry will gamble because that’s what he does. Curtis will gamble on Gerry because that’s what he does.
Mississippi Grind works wonders with the subtleties of the two men’s relationship, with Boden and Fleck using both actors astutely. Mendehlson’s performance beautifully mixes the melancholy and the manic; look at the way he fidgets and flails when he tells Curtis that he pretty much owes money to everybody. Gerry, we suspect, is a guy who was born at the end of the rope and has been dangling there ever service. Reynolds, meanwhile, has finally found a role to match his aristocratic insincerity: We can never quite get a read on Curtis, because even when he’s trying to be candid, he seems weirdly artificial. This has plagued the actor in his previous roles, helping undermine some big-budget star vehicles along the way. But here, the uncertainty he creates is perfect for this oily charmer.
A film that turns on this kind of ambiguity would ordinarily be cold, grim, paranoid. But Boden and Fleck give this world texture and warmth; their widescreen interiors glow, and it’s hard not to be lulled into them by the siren song of conversation and clinking drinks and possibility. We know things can’t end well, and that one or the other of these men might be being played, but we’re intoxicated by it nonetheless. “The journey is the destination,” Curtis likes to say, and Mississippi Grind bears that out. We don’t know what game these people are playing or where they’re ultimately going, but we enjoy the ride while it lasts.