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If I were a betting man, I would put money on Ben Mendelsohn being nominated for an Oscar for his acting in "Mississippi Grind." But "Mississippi Grind" is successful because of more than only the acting. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote and co-directed the movie, deftly navigate the near-nostalgia in which the film traffics without ever succumbing to it.
Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a middle-aged gambling addict in Iowa who believes he has the ability to discern a deeper meaning hidden just below the surface of the world, a meaning the rest of us miss or don't know how to read. The spectacular rainbow over Iowa farmland that opens "Mississippi Grind" is a sign for Gerry, and the movie tumbles forward as he tries to find the pot of gold at the other end.
Only Gerry, who's barely hanging on to his real estate job and Subaru, and has long since lost his wife and little girl, seems to have witnessed the rainbow until a winsome stranger appears at his poker table, as if conjured, and mentions it. Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) is a fellow gambler 10 years Gerry's junior who is just passing through on his way to a big pot in New Orleans. He has the easy smile and good looks of a confidence man, and you can never shake the feeling that the friendship they strike up may only be a long con on Curtis' part. But Gerry sees in Curtis what he wants to — a luckier self, a last chance, a fetish (Gerry even calls him his "big, handsome leprechaun" at one point). And when Curtis again walks unexpectedly into Gerry's world, Gerry knows: "It's a sign. It's a sign!"
A sign of what? It's a sign that they are to set off together for New Orleans, following the Mississippi River all the way down. Gerry is running from his life and debts in Dubuque, and Curtis is drifting easily toward yet another win in his lucky life, or so it seems. "Mississippi Grind" is a buddy/road movie in which the buddies are strangers whose years of bluffing and folding make true connection unlikely. It's the yellow-brick road gone weedy. Huck and Jim rafting the Mississip' — a reference made blatantly in the movie — without the moral awakening. Dante being led by Virgil down, down, down to the very lowest circle of hell, not as visitors but as two inhabitants finding their proper places in that underworld. "It's a long way down, ain't it, Gerry?" Curtis notes at one point. And they're nowhere near the bottom yet.
From Dubuque to St. Louis, where the Gateway Arch is a stone-gray rainbow mocking Gerry's hope, and from St. Louis to Memphis, gambling at each stop along the way. They drift back and forth from the bright, polished nowheres of corporate casinos to the smoky blue gloaming of backroom poker games, from daylight racetracks to midnight pool halls.
In their only detour from the river, the two drive west from Memphis to Little Rock. Gerry claims he wants to make up with his ex-wife after having won big in a backroom game. And so they drift off the highway and down into town, represented in a flash of landmarks that will be recognizable to locals — the Junction Bridge, Doe's Eat Place, the defunct Cinema 150 on University Avenue. Little Rock represents a last chance at connection and salvation, but for Gerry it's little more than a pit stop on his shameless descent.
The two make it to New Orleans, and pawn and punch and roll their way to a climax that secures the place of "Mississippi Grind" in the upper tier of gambling movies. "We can't lose," says Gerry, again and again in the penultimate scene, and you don't know whether it's gambler's bravado or the loser's final prayer. In fact, you are left wondering whether we ever understand who are the winners and who are the losers, and whether there's anything on the other end of the rainbow except what we have left behind.
It will likely be the acting that gets the most notice in the film: Mendelsohn and Reynolds, certainly, but also actors in smaller roles, like Alfre Woodard, who is brilliant if unexpected as a small-town loan shark. The blues-heavy soundtrack, the scenery, the costumes are all so right that they almost disappear from notice.
The total effect is that, as the theater lights dim, the rainbow appears, Gerry slouches up to the bar, and already you're all in.