Sunday, March 17, 2019

Putting It All On Two Great Lead Performances And A Strong Script Lead Mississippi Grind To A Big Win

I'm always fascinated by major turning points in an actor's careers, that moment where you can clearly see how one movie changed the trajectory of their careers. Think of how Leslie Nielsen forever became associated with spoofy comedies with Airplane! I'm especially fascinated by contemplating what would have happened if those major turning points hadn't happened. Take Ryan Reynolds for instance. He finally secured A-list leading man status with 2016's Deadpool, but between that film and 2013's blockbuster box office bomb R.I.P.D., Reynolds did a number of offbeat indie projects like The Voices, The Captive and Mississippi Grind that allowed him to show off his talents as a performer beyond just cracking wise and breaking the fourth wall. 

If Deadpool hadn't resonated so deeply with the public, would Reynolds have ended up just going down the indie movie route for the rest of his career? If his work in Mississippi Grind (as well as Reynold's memorable supporting turn in Adventureland) is any indication, that wouldn't have been the worse direction for his career to go in. Reynolds is established in the opening sequence of Mississippi Grind as Curtis Vaughn, a card player who's got plenty of stories to tell and a man who fellow poker devotee Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) believes, after scoring some card game victories, is now a kind of good luck charm. Gerry could use all the good luck in all the world right now given all of the debt he's in.

With the deadline to pay off his debts looming large, Gerry comes up with an idea for him and Curtis to embark on a mini-road trip that would see them hitting a whole bunch of casinos in an attempt to win enough money to pay off Gerry's debts. The two's unorthodox road trip makes up the majority of the runtime of Mississippi Grind, as does intricate exploration of who these two men are as people. Just as they did with their writing on Half Nelson, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's script is skilled at crafting a heavily flawed lead character (in this case, Gerry) that the audience maintains a constant interest in. Flawed gambling addicts are a dime-a-dozen in indie American cinema but Gerry feels like a wholly unique creation primarily because he's played from the get-go as a wholly flawed individual.

The idea that Gerry is a man whose life is in shambles isn't played as a late second-act revelation, both Curtis and the viewer can tell from the get-go that he's a guy who's being held together by a thread. That realistic sense of desperation that's so apparent from frame one turns out to be utterly riveting in both how the character's written and in Ben Mendelsohn's incredible lead performance. It also makes for a great companion to Curtis, a guy whose assured exterior masks a craving for human companionship. Neither of these individuals are fully whole and they've got plenty of emotional baggage to carry on. Fascinatingly, Mississippi Grind depicts the budding friendship between the two of them not as an easy route to each of them solving their problems but as a complex dynamic that indulges in their individual best and worst qualities.

It's a complex portrait of an unusual friendship that proves to be one of the most fascinating parts of a movie that doesn't shy away from the darker parts of its characters, particularly in regards to showing what grimly pathetic lengths Gerry will go to in order to resolve his debts. Though Boden & Fleck's direction behind the camera, which sees conversations between characters lean a bit too heavily on the medium-shot/reverse-medium-shot visual approach, can sometimes feel on the generic side, their work as writers here is outright sublime. The way this duo exceptionally paints complex portraits of these two troubled people who find both solace & turmoil in the world of gambling is accompanied by similarly thoughtful performances from the two lead actors.

Ben Mendelsohn, in one of his first movies after the TV show Bloodline increased his profile ten-fold, is no stranger to doing thoughtful portraits of morally complex human beings and that talent gets put to phenomenal use in Mississippi Grind. Mendelsohn effectively communicates all the torment Gerry is living with on a daily basis through the most subtle of means and I love the small bits of individual personality he incorporates into the performance that ensures that his depiction of Gerry won't end up feeling derivative of other gambling addict characters. Playing off Mendelsohn for much of the movie is Ryan Reynolds, who uses the fast-talking charming persona he'd put to humorous use in those Deadpool movies to a quietly melancholy use in his performance as Curtis.

Underneath all of those stories Curtis tells about prior extraordinary gambling victories or colorful characters he's encountered, is someone who's actually just scared & alone, That's a part of his personality that Reynolds is able to depict with impressive levels of authenticity while both he and Mendelsohn have a unique type of chemistry together that feels appropriate for such a conceptually unorthodox lead duo. Throughout Mississippi Grind, the characters played by Reynolds and Mendelsohn inhabit all kinds of diners, casinos and hotels that do a great job of actually looking like they've been through natural wear-and-tear. They don't look run-down or anything bad like that, but those responsible for choosing these locations to film in did good work picking out places that avoid looking like cookie-cutter locales and instead feel ripped right out of reality itself. That makes them fitting locations for the similarly realistic Mississippi Grind which uses impressively complex performances and writing to make quite the absorbing tale. If Reynolds had ended up solely starring in movies this good if Deadpool hadn't taken off, I think his career would have been just fine.

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