Toronto 2015: 'Mississippi Grind' review

★★☆☆☆
The saying goes that when in a hole you should stop digging. Meandering road movie Mississippi Grind (2015), co-directed by the Half Nelson (2006) and Sugar (2008) duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, features two hopeless gamblers on whom the sentiment of this old adage appears to have been entirely lost. The pairing behind the camera elicits a free-wheeling chemistry and fine performances from leading men Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, but just as predictably as its central pair are drawn like moths to the flame of a blackjack table, the film is a rote, run-of-the-mill construction, including Reynolds' Curtis saying on numerous occasions that "the journey is the destination".

This odyssey takes the boys on a road trip along that most mythic of rivers from Dubuque, Iowa to a win-or-bust poker game in New Orleans which will solve all outstanding debts. Stops along the way are made in St. Louis (to do some gambling and for Curtis to rekindle amorous relations with Sienna Miller's Simone), Memphis (to do some more gambling), and a detour to Little Rock (for Gerry to make a cursory visit to a neglected ex-wife and child and to procure money for - you guessed it - a little bit of gambling). At times a touching study of addiction, the compulsive behaviour of Gerry, in particular, is hard to handle and the consistently superb Mendelsohn impresses.

Gerry knows and acknowledges that he is "not a good person" and has "problems with money" and yet is unable to go against a well-worn grain. Balancing the knife edge of desperate optimism and just plain desperation the Australian's performance is difficult to behold and yet continually engaging. Whether Curtis, who his partner in crime sees as a “big, handsome leprechaun” and lucky charm, is any more in the wrong for facilitating Gerry's behaviour is a question for debate. Reynolds' dark puppy dogs, sunken and weary, belie an unspoken underbelly of hurt and past disappointment. Allusions to a troubled upbringing, a momentary visit to a nightclub singing mother and a continual desire to run away to Machu Picchu to escape it all, point towards a man forever drifting from nowhere to nowhere. As in previous roles, Reynolds' particular strength is in subtle but superb comic timing and delivery. There's a lot more to his character than meets the eye but he plays personal cards very close to his chest.

However strong the film's pocket rockets may be, it is a shame that other members of a gifted cast are relegated to cameos. Simone and fellow lady of the night, Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton), appear for one chapter of the story and are then forgotten. Alfre Woodard, whose eyes are truly captivating, makes an equally brief appearance acting as go-between from Gerry to his debtors and is then not seen again. Like the river it follows, the course of the narrative only flows in one direction but unfortunately a lot of baggage is left along the way. With so much invested in getting from A to B, the filmmakers also seem uncertain in what to do when they reached its end point; the conclusion feeling a little cobbled together. While Mississippi Grind may not do anything new or improved with the familiar tropes of former road and buddy movies it's good to go along for the ride. The narrative saunters with the melancholia of a smart delta blues score towards the end of the rainbow; it's just a shame that you won't find a pot of gold over the horizon.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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