TIFF: 'Mississippi Grind' Aims to Beat Odds Against Gambling Films With Academy

Mississippi Grind, a drama about two gambling men who meet, bond and hit the road together, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 16, nearly nine months after making its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck — whose mastery at creating roles for and eliciting strong work from actors was best on display in 2006's Half Nelson — this indie, which A24 will release on Sept. 25, owes much of its appeal to two wonderful performances: one by Ben Mendelsohn, who is among the finest thesps working today, and the other by Ryan Reynolds, who can be hit or miss but rises to the occasion here.

Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a sad-sack gambling addict whose fortunes seem to increase when he's in the company of Curtis, Reynolds' more confident and put-together bro who claims not to care whether he wins or loses. The duo from the heartland enjoy each other's company for different reasons — Gerry mainly because he sees Curtis as a good-luck charm who also fronts him money, and Curtis apparently because he likes the excitement and edginess that comes from spending time with Gerry. Ultimately, they embark on a trip together down the Mississippi, headed for a high-stakes game in New Orleans that could make — or break — both of them. Along the way, and post-arrival, we learn a lot more about both of them.

This genre of film has almost never received recognition from year-end awards groups, and this specific film will probably prove no exception — if it was just Mendelsohn's story, perhaps he'd be in the discussion, and if the script, and particularly its ending, was a little tighter, perhaps it would be in the discussion. Even so, it's a hell of a lot of fun watching these dudes move from poker tables to racetracks to basketball courts in search of money, or at least a greater sense of feeling alive — and quick but memorable cameos by Alfred Woodard and Robin Weigert, plus James Toback, the writer and inspiration of the similarly themed 1974 classic The Gambler, are the cherry on the cake.