Best film title of the year?
Ever been in a casino in the middle of the day?
If you’re lucky, you haven’t. If you have, you know that casinos rarely ever share the glitz and glamour of their cinematic counterparts. No, usually they’re dark and damp places, where dishevelled hands grow dirty from pushing small change into slot machines.
Gambling is a lonely, isolating addiction. Casinos are traps in which poor men are sold dreams of riches to distract them from their pockets being picked.
This is the world that the tender – but ultimately flawed – film Mississippi Grind enters, and does so convincingly. The punters are suitably ugly and shabby. Gamblers are losers and no one is better at playing losers than Ben Mendelsohn.
He plays Gerry, a train-wreck gambler who looks to cosmic signals for betting justifications, having never realized that he is the only constant in his own bad luck. When drifter Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) pulls into town, the two form an unlikely friendship, and decide to leave for New Orleans, to try their hands in a high-stakes game of poker.
Like the directors’s earlier work (notably Half Nelson), Mississippi Grind opts for character over plot, seeming to have a John Cheever-like fascination with the masks people wear. Poker provides the ultimate metaphor for this concept, and naturally as the film progresses, the personas adopted by the men slowly give way, and we see into their addiction.
This complexity requires top-notch performances, which at first glance may not be guaranteed by the cast list. Although it’s hard to think of a bad film starring Mendelsohn (I’ll settle for Trespass), it’s equally hard to think of a good one starring Reynolds (it took a while to remember Buried).
However, both actors are excellent, their performances seamless and effortless. There’s no style or gimmicks at play. Instead, every moment is presented as honestly as possible. When both are on screen, the film feels alive and inevitable.
The main problem, however, is the ending. The film seems to be building to a certain conclusion, and indeed reaches it, only to then move drastically past it into a horribly hokey conclusion. As these late additions grasp for a redemptive round off, the bite of the film is lost, and with it goes the message.
In the end, it becomes a film about nothing, really. It has great performances and smartly observed moments, but as it moves from cautionary to sentimental, it exits on a shrug.
If only it had’ve ended ten minutes sooner.
By Rían Smith
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