Like the nomadic loner he plays in Mississippi Grind, Ryan Reynolds is a gambler with a self-destructive streak. Looking over his filmography, you’ll see big winners (The Proposal, The Croods), big losers (The Green Lantern, R.I.P.D., The Change-Up) along with scads of long shots (The Voices, Buried, Paper Man). These choices have contributed to Reynold’s reputation as a failed leading man. Yet, the guy keeps going, keeps taking risks. In the past year, he’s starred in a tender biopic (Woman in Gold), an ambitious—but deeply flawed—sci-fi thriller (Self/Less), and now a two-handed character drama about a pair of fuck-up gamblers. Whatever the quality of the films turns out to be, you got to admire Reynolds’ fearlessness in rolling the dice.
Oh course, when you’re co-starring with Ben Mendelsohn, one of the greatest character actors working today, Mississippi Grind must seem a safe bet. The Australian star’s weathered mug has come to represent trouble (see: Slow West or Bloodline.) But as down-on-his-luck Gerry, Mendelsohn is not a menace as much as a gambling addict deep in a pit of his own making. Pain streaks his face from his first frame. But a glint of hope sparks in his downcast eyes when the dynamic Curtis (Reynolds)—with his top-shelf bourbons and devil-may-care-attitude—breezes into his life.
Curtis is younger, charming, and carefree in a way Gerry longs to be. Seeing him as a fateful lucky charm, Gerry convinces Curtis to travel with him to a big poker tournament for one last pot to settle his debts and set him straight. So begins a road trip that will take them through St. Louis, Little Rock, and Memphis on route to New Orleans. Along the way, they’ll win, lose, and share some tender moments with a pair of prostitutes played by Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton.
Co-writers/co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck lovingly laying out Mississippi Grind with an unhurried hand. The focus here—as Curtis reminds us with crooked smiles and earnest diagloue—is the journey, not the destination. The filmmakers behind Half Nelson have always had an eye for talent. And their trust in Mendelsohn and Reynolds is well-founded. The pair weave a complex and compelling co-dependent relationship that keeps Mississippi Grind entertaining even when nothing much is going on. But once these wanderers separate, the pace slows to a crawl that doesn’t pick up even after they reunite. Though its final act runs out of steam, fans of Mendelsohn and/or Reynolds will relish the electric character work explored here.
Now what does all this have to do with Deadpool?
Well, after Green Lantern, I was content never to see Reynolds superhero suit up again. Mississippi Grind helped me see more of him than I had before. Reynolds’ alluring cockiness and smug humor has long been a part of his persona, and it plays well folded into his fast-talking poker player. (Fitting for the kooky confident Deadpool.) But there’s a trace of desperation in Curtis’s kindness to Gerry, a sort of need to make some sense in a world so mad. To see Curtis scoff in the face of danger, tell tall tales to smirking strangers, and above all else push Gerry to be more than the loser the world has written him off as, I could see a hero who is as fucked up as he is fearless. I could also see—in one post-coital scene—some seemingly random tattoos that litter Reynolds thigh and served as a symbol for all the things we haven’t yet seen from this failed-to-launch leading man. I could see just how Reynold’s career may have been leading up to Deadpool, just as the misfortunes of Mississippi Grind’s anti-heroes lead up to their climactic casino scene.
Which is to say, that this intimated indie where Reynolds blends comedy, brawling and a shimmering thread of pathos has me betting on Deadpool. At long last.