Mississippi Grind (15)
- Credit: Archant
Lady Luck deals us a winning hand with writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's coolly assured character study.
Earlier this year, Mark Wahlberg headlined an ill-conceived remake of James Toback's seminal 1974 drama The Gambler.
Mississippi Grind shuffles its cards from the same well-thumbed narrative deck and even features a pivotal cameo from Toback in the film's closing moments, when the fate of battered and bruised players rest on the turn of one card or the roll of a die.
For all its familiarity, Fleck and Boden's picture executes its characters' falls from grace with clinical precision, demanding big risks from actors Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as men, who make life-altering decisions on the toss of a coin.
The filmmakers' gamble pays off handsomely: the two leads deliver unselfconscious and heart-wrenching performances, dripping with the sweat of desperation and self-loathing.
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As Reynolds' cool-headed chancer correctly remarks, 'This story does not have a happy ending.'
That's not to say that this is a gut-punch of endless misery and gloom.
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The script has flushes of comedy and humour, and the actors' winning on-screen chemistry harks back to a bygone era of Hollywood buddy movies.
Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a loveless and luckless real estate agent in Dubuque, Iowa, who has borrowed thousands of dollars from a loan shark (Alfre Woodard) to finance his gambling habit.
Debts are spiralling and Gerry desperately needs one big win to keep the wolves from his door.
At a card game, he meets bourbon connoisseur Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who lacks inhibitions because, in his own words, 'I don't care about winning.'
Curtis' carefree attitude has a positive effect on Gerry's fortunes and the gambler proposes that they join forces and head to New Orleans for a high-profile poker tournament that requires a 25,000 US dollars initial stake.
'I'll play, you'll be my lucky charm,' enthuses Gerry. 'We'll split the winnings, even-steven.'
Thus the two men hit the road, pit-stopping in St Louis, Memphis and Little Rock to amass the money.
En route, the unlikely buddies cross paths with working girls Simone (Sienna Miller) and Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) and Gerry blunders into an awkward reunion with his aggrieved ex-wife, Dorothy (Robin Weigert).
Mississippi Grind achieves its modest ambitions with style and artistry, vividly sketching a modern-day bromance that threatens to come apart at the booze-soaked seams.
The script falls a couple of spins short of hitting an emotional jackpot, but it's difficult to see how the writer-directors could achieve that kind of crescendo without some clumsy contrivance.
Fleck and Boden place their unerring trust throughout in Mendelsohn and Reynolds, filming pivotal scenes of doubt and despair in uncomfortable close-up so we have nowhere to hide from the characters' pain.
Every time they lose and lament, we win.
*** (3 stars)