There are numerous gambling films. Some are about beating the house, some address the travails of casino management, some portray the skill and genius of the winning gambler. Mississippi Grind is none of these things. It is the story of two individuals who can be defined as much by their gambling success as the costs of their addiction.

Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) and Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) have little in common outside of their incessant desire to gamble. Curtis is flashy and friendly, always the center of attention as he drifts from city to city only half-interested in winning. Gerry is a local gambler, a quiet man at the tables who can’t help himself from adding to his growing debts. The two come together and form an unlikely friendship, eventually agreeing to travel down the Mississippi and visit a series of riverboat casinos and poker rooms on their way to New Orleans. Both men have histories they conceal from one another, with their journey revealing the character of each and carrying the film’s story.

The film’s strength is its focus on Curtis and Gerry as individuals. They are gamblers, and while their successes and failures are shown, the focus always remains on the men. The cards that come up and the dice that land are not shown. Rather, the attention stays on Curtis and Gerry and how they are shaped by their betting. It is too easy to turn a story like this into something cheesy or sensationalist but Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who wrote and directed the film, avoid this. The pair craft a well-written drama that slowly unfolds more about each man.

The story is enhanced by encounters with an old love-interest of Curtis, Gerry’s ex-wife, and finally Curtis’ mother. Each encounter reveals more about the main characters and their understanding of one another. Questions of trust are ever-present given that both men are gamblers and they have no history together. The ups and downs on their trip are reflected in their relationship and eventually force each man to reassess relationships with the people they care about.

Ryan Reynolds is perfectly suited for the charismatic Curtis. He does well to portray his character at his lowest moments along with his best and provides much of the humor. Ben Mendelsohn is ideally cast as a down on his luck gambler. He is great at inhabiting darker characters who are often on edge. Sienna Miller and Alfre Woodard make multiple appearances, whereas most of the supporting cast is seen just once before the main characters move on.

The production adds to the film’s atmosphere. The film’s visuals and blues soundtrack enhance the story and its underlying drama. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh is a frequent collaborator of Boden and Fleck and helps gives the film a texture that enhances the often dark settings. Most scenes are filmed with handheld cameras though not in a way that detracts from the story.

Mendelsohn and Reynolds carry the film and their performances hold your attention despite some slower parts. Mississippi Grind is an entertaining drama that explores the psyche of two contrasting gamblers. Boden and Fleck deserve credit for crafting an original gambling story and character study.

Our Rating: Rent

Mississippi Grind is worth renting, but not necessarily worth seeing in theaters or owning.