We’re in a dingy poker room in Iowa — a smallish cave with a low ceiling, tucked into the corner of a third-rate casino where the slots never stop chiming and taunting with their empty promises of a big payout, and gamblers and employees alike trudge about as if they’ve been condemned to a lifetime of disappointment and they’re just carrying out their sentences.
There’s a low-stakes tournament in progress. Looks like all the players know each other, and they’re well past the point of pulling off any surprise moves.
Enter Curtis, a handsome, energized, borderline obnoxious talking machine who plunks himself down at the table and immediately starts asking personal questions, spinning tall tales, making big bets and ordering top-shelf liquor for himself and his opponent in a big hand.
Ryan Reynolds plays Curtis. He is the biggest name in the savvy, melancholy, achingly accurate “Mississippi Grind,” and from the scene-stealing nature of Reynolds’ first few minutes onscreen, one naturally assumes this will be Curtis’ story and Reynolds’ movie.
But as any veteran gambler (for example, your reviewer) will tell you, making assumptions and believing you’ve spotted a sure thing is a dangerous proposition. “Mississippi Grind” is the cinematic equivalent of the unassuming, quiet player at the poker table who allows you to believe you have him pegged — and that’s when he springs the trap on you and shows you something you never saw coming.
This is one of the better movies about the gambling culture in recent years, just a notch below such classics as the original version of “The Gambler” with James Caan, “California Split” and of course “Rounders.”
The real star of “Mississippi Grind” is Ben Mendelsohn, a wonderful chameleon of an actor who had considerable success as a TV and film actor in Australia before appearing in such films as “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
Mendelsohn gives one of the great low-key performances of the year as Gerry, a 44-year-old, divorced real estate agent who lives with his cat, takes no interest in his personal appearance and spends every free waking moment gambling or trying to raise another bankroll so he can go back to gambling. He’d be the first to agree with you if you called him a loser, but there’s something charming about Gerry — the least bit of light in his eyes that tells you he’s not down for the count just yet.
Curtis provides just the spark Gerry needs. Gerry likes to gamble on games of chance. Curtis is all for that as well, but he also likes to gamble on people. Just like that, Curtis and Gerry are on the road, with blues music on the soundtrack and talk of high-stakes poker victories, comped suites in casino hotels — and beautiful women who will understand them.
At first it feels as if Curtis is executing some kind of long con on Gerry. Maybe. Maybe not. Suffice to say they learn a lot about each other on the road.
Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson,” “Sugar,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) give us just the right proportion of gambling scenes, with precious few missteps in the terminology or the plausibility factor. Mendelsohn and Reynolds look like they know what they’re doing in the poker room, at the blackjack table, playing craps, betting on roulette, playing the ponies. This is a gambling movie that won’t have gamblers howling at the inaccuracies.
“Mississippi Grind” knows just when to remind us this is a buddy movie about two seriously messed-up buddies. Curtis has a complicated personal life. Sienna Miller’s Simone could be the perfect match for him — but she might be too smart and cynical to believe him even when he’s finally sincere. And a scene in which Gerry drops in on his ex-wife (Robin Weigert), and things go from awkward to bad to worse to devastating, reminds us Gerry is an addict, capable of horrendous behavior to serve his habit.
My favorite moment in this film is the scene right after Gerry and Curtis take the biggest risk of their lives. It takes a long, long time before we know whether they’ve won or lost.
That’s because for far too many gamblers, the only thing more unsettling than going broke is winning big.