Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "Mississippi Grind" is a fascinating ode to American character - rootless, resilient, senselessly optimistic, subordinating relationships and families to a quixotic success that is more defined by materialism, superstition and luck than it is by skill, craft, intelligence and perseverance. "Mississippi Grind" inhabits a world below and beyond "Life on the Mississippi" and "On the Road."
Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) just as he seems to have bottomed out in a seedy Iowa backroom poker game. Curtis immediately becomes Gerry's good luck charm. He fills Gerry's ear with stories of a legendary high stakes New Orleans poker game. Convinced they cannot fail, the new friends set out on road and river to win their fortune.
The contours of their pasts are slowly revealed - debts and delinquencies, failed relationships, broken marriages, abandoned kids. Quick deft strokes sketch out character. Gerry disinterestedly sells real estate. Curtis keeps his prostitute girlfriend at arms length. While Gerry studies audio tapes to improve his gambling techniques, Curtis follows the rainbow of spontaneity.
Dramatic tension is established more through character than action. There are scenes of sheer brilliance where Mendelsohn and Reynold's characters interact with each other and supporting cast in such a heartfelt way that sentiment could be confused with sense. But these are reactive individuals with little reflection. So they drift along through murky situations, bouncing from one gambling venue to another without learning or growing. Unlike Robert Altman's buddy gambling classic "California Split," which centers on the quest, the games in "Mississippi Grind" are incidental to the players.
The road that Gerry and Ben take is often more attractive than the protagonists. Endless highways and potted back roads through neon lit, smoky dens of big cities and small towns . . . racetracks, bars and casinos with their tired lounge singers and bored hookers, washed over and glued together by Memphis native Scott Bomar's ("Hustle and Flow," "Black Snake Moan") soulful soundtrack.
Boden and Fleck, who both wrote and directed the film, are no strangers to the complexity of character. They have consistently worked wonders peopling films with memorable performances. Their body of work consistently casts clear, non-judgmental lenses on their subjects. They provide enough space and support for their actors to fully realize roles. The yield is an outstanding product. Ryan Gosling was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his tortured teacher turn in "Half Nelson." Zach Galifianakis soared in "It's Kind of a Funny Story." The unknown Algenis Perez Soto was riveting as Miguel "Sugar" Santos in the underappreciated "Sugar,"the tale of a Dominican baseball player.
"Mississippi Grind" gives us two more portraits in a distinctly American landscape. Less than heroic, they are trying to survive in a land that is more unfriendly than dangerously hostile. They still believe in a better future for themselves, if not others, though they seem to realize they are trapped in and by their games. Slice of life or cautionary tale, we can only hope that Fleck and Boden continue to fill our cinemas with such richness of character.