The thing about Ben Mendelsohn is that he’s so good you forget you’re watching Ben Mendelsohn.
You will rarely get the standout Oscar Clip scene but he seamlessly slips into the character he’s playing, making every little tick and every nuance believable. There’s real thought gone into the performance. He’s again terrific as a likeable loser in this gambling drama, a return to form for writer-directors Boden and Fleck.
Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a middle aged deadbeat shuffling from backroom poker table to casino in the hope that the next hand will be the one that pays off those considerable debts. He meets the charismatic and cocksure Curtis (Reynolds) at a low stakes game and the two hit it off over a glass of their favourite bourbon. When Gerry gets wind of a big game in New Orleans with a high buy in, he begs the more affluent Curtis to front him the cash. The two jump in the car and make their way south…
After a slight wobble with It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck approach the high-water mark of their Half-Nelson and Sugar with this engaging drama. Revelling in its low key realism, Boden and Fleck are in no hurry to move things along and seem happy to let Gerry and Curtis share a glass and shoot the breeze about their common failings. This would be a problem if the dialogue wasn’t smart and the characters written with real depth.
There’s an air of mystery to it too. Why Curtis goes out of his way to help Gerry, who is essentially a stranger, give the proceedings make the audience wonder if he’s on the level. When Curtis is not around bad things happen to Gerry – he is mugged only moments after he and Curtis part company – the audience is asked to doubt if it’s more than just a long con – is this handsome charmer some kind of angel?
However, all this mystery is stripped away rendering Curtis rather ordinary. The story branches out to investigate his life when keeping him a mystery was what was working: we’re introduced to his on again-off again (stripper Sienna Miller) and explores his own hopes and insecurities. The narrative becomes lopsided – whose story is this now? Once Mississippi Grind hits the road it loses its way somewhat.
But to their credit Boden and Fleck get things back on track and keep undercutting expectations. The chemistry between Mendelsohn and Reynolds keep things ticking over through those unsure moments.