Mississippi Grind ★★★★

Focusing on the pain behind the eyes of its characters, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "Mississippi Grind" is an engaging and rewarding drama about two gamblers drawn to each other when each's luck wanes. More character study and observation of friendship than plot-driven journey into small-time gaming, the film is a textured piece of work elevated by the sturdy performances of its leads and its accessible emotions.

Starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, "Mississippi Grind" finds the two beginning a friendship at a gaming table before offering an examination of what makes each man tick. One is a melancholy wanderer whose choices have left him bereft of necessary love, while the other is an energetic charmer finding his way. The two form both sides of coin that drives the film's drama through a tension-rife world where luck is a deciding and potentially destructive factor.

Fleck and Boden deliver the story in a way where the audience feels the weight and sorrow carried by each character and, then, revels in their victories. With a clean focus on each man that slowly reveals character and motivation, the directors allow the audience to make its own judgments of the men. The film, itself, does not dictate any sort of morality, as that morality is in the eye of each beholding viewer.

The production does not work to capture a glitzy world of casinos; instead, the lower-rent landscape of river boats and just-off-the-interstate gambling palaces adorns the steady-paced work. The look reflects its characters' reality by exhibiting notes of grit, polish, seediness, and safety.

Reynolds is outstanding in a role the requires an accent and broken nose and allows him to push down any natural charm, resulting in world-weary appeal. Mendelsohn, however, is the film's emotional center, creating a character trapped in a life of addiction. His eyes consistently communicate the sadness of his past and the worry of his present.

"Mississippi Grind," with its subtle dramatic strengths and stand-out lead cast, is a well-built and quietly moving film. Its thematic center consistently clear, the drama sneaks up on its audience and leaves it with an experience that is rich, sad, and, ultimately, affirming.

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