Shortly after Rupert Wyatt’s Mark Wahlberg lead The Gambler, the poker world gets another treatment in the form of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind. Whilst the story feels familiar, lead stars Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds are too charming to possibly dismiss this.
Gerry (Mendelsohn), a down on his luck gambler, strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young card player (Reynolds) whom he convinces to accompany him to a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans. This journey acts as a bonding experience, initially bringing them closer but both men eventually see a darker side to the other whilst on this trip.
If Wahlberg’s gambler film was a more unconventional take on the cardshark story, then Boden and Fleck’s is its mainstream counterpart. Featuring similarly damaged characters and a plethora of poker scenes, Mississippi Grind does not add a huge amount of originality to the gambler film, but has a reassuring familiarity that is perfectly pleasing when in an undemanding mood. The card scenes may lack the tension and dramatic weight that they deserve but Mississippi Grind finds its niche in a well-written relationship between the two leads – working better as a male-bonding road movie than a gambling one.
Boden and Fleck’s narrative finds its stride when delving into its protagonist’s back-stories. Seeing Gerry dealing with a loneshark (the great Alfre Woodard), attempting to reconnect with his family, and desperately attempting to gain cash by any means necessary to feed his addiction gives the film a solid emotional backbone. Even Reynold’s slick wise-cracking player is given some emotional subtext to sink his teeth into as seen in a subplot which sees him romancing Sienna Miller’s escort character.
Mendelsohn is outstanding as the man who does not know when to quit and brings some engaging characterisation to a role which could have been any other down on his luck gambler part. The actor excels at presenting the emotional turmoil of Gerry’s loneliness and spiralling debts as they slip through his firm poker face. Reynolds brings a bouncing charisma and effortless charm to the over-confident young player, yet despite this what makes the role fascinating is his desire to lose and the sense of self-loathing that masquerades behind this gutsy facade. As always Sienna Miller impresses but this is a thankless role which sadly fails to utilise her acting talents.
Without the strong performances of Reynolds and Mendelsohn, there would not be a great deal to recommend Mississippi Grind for – but thankfully both actors bring this familiar flick to life.