Ben Mendelsohn did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Gerry in Mississippi Grind.
Mississippi Grind is sort of The Hustler which believes in humanity I suppose, about two gamblers who go on a gambling road trip.
Ben Mendelsohn after making his international break out through Animal Kingdom has found himself frequently cast as villainous or at the very least criminal character. This is a nice break from that, though Gerry does engage in some petty theft, as Mendelsohn gets to just play a pretty normal guy here. The film opens with Gerry engaging in a low stakes poker game with Mendelsohn suggesting Gerry is being more or less in a similar low energy state as the rest of the players, though he offers a bit more levity in his manner than the rest as Mendelsohn brings some enthusiasm as he inquires if anyone else saw a rainbow. Another man, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), joins the game who seems almost on a different wavelength than the rest of the players as he attempts to bring some energy and enthusiasm to the table. Mendelsohn does well in this just through his reactions as shows Gerry obviously appreciating Curtis's upbeat attitude especially against the indifference of the rest of the players. After the game Gerry runs into Curtis again, purely by luck, where the two bond over their fondness for gambling and an affection for a certain bourbon. Now Reynolds and Mendelsohn together is pretty much the film, in that he probably would not have worked at all if these two did not have chemistry.
Now the film has a way in by making Curtis a people person, who just literally loves people, but that explanation was not necessarily even needed in order for us to believe that Curtis and Gerry would become friends. The reason being Mendelsohn and Reynolds have just so much chemistry together. The friendship is instantly convincing and it is made simply a given by the two actors is which is something rather special. The two play each other so well with Mendelsohn staying more low key as the more understated Gerry, while Reynolds indeed is the people person Curtis should be as his good cheer only ever feels genuine. The dynamic is great yet the two are excellent in finding the right connection between the two that is basically an unsaid appreciate for life in general, even though it itself has not been excessively kind to either of them. The two are wonderful together to the point that its just so pleasant to watch the two interact in the moments where there is this mutual appreciation, as the two just are fun to watch have some fun. There banter always comes off as so natural, and there is just something endearing to watch the two go back and forth. I especially love an early moment as the two casually build up the betting of a pool game though it gets them in trouble rather quickly, the good sheer in their raising of the stakes is so charming.
When they are away from one another Mendelsohn utilizes these scenes well to reveal the state of Gerry which is basically as a perpetual loser due to his inability to quit when it comes to gambling. What's remarkable is how Mendelsohn so artfully avoids any melodrama in his depiction of this though. There's a definite sadness to the man that he conveys well by having a general melancholy most of the time, but revealing something even more troubling when he is reminded of his losses in life. Mendelsohn does something very interesting though in that he almost creates a problematic optimism in Gerry that seems to be behind his inability to quit. Whenever he succeeds with a bet there is such an out pour of joy that Mendelsohn undeniably reveals the appeal of the victory, then even in defeat Mendelsohn carries that consistent urge within Gerry as though one will bet will bring him back on top. I like that Mendelsohn does not override any of it being able to present basically a functioning gambler with his performance. The unhealthy obsession with it is there beneath it all, but it's easy to see why he could keep going since it only rears its ugly head completely when he fails. He makes it seem less of a problem, and all the worse of a problem because of that.
Of course it is not all about gambling and there is a great scene where the two spend a night with two prostitutes Simone (Sienna Miller) and Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton), though they are not acting with that function with these two. Now the interactions between Gerry and Vanessa are not romantic in nature, though this is despite Vanessa, through Tipton's reactions throughout the scene, obviously being more than willing to change that. That's not needed to make the scene something very special nonetheless as there is simply this ease of interactions between the two of them as they spend this time together. It is almost a mutual trade as they both do a pseudo talent show for one another then Tipton and Mendelsohn make it a very natural transition as Gerry reveals a bit of his own present predicament as Vanessa reveals some of her own. Mendelosohn is quietly moving as Gerry reveals, without becoming just self-pitying, his own mistakes of the past with the certain heartache of being a non-factor in the life of his daughter. It's made beautifully poignant scene by both performers. I especially like how Mendelsohn does not play it as though Gerry's oblivious to Vanessa's suggestive glances, rather he suggest Gerry is aware of them, but would rather keep things platonic between the two.
As Curtis and Gerry continue on their journey things only become worse for Gerry as he keeps losing money, while refusing to give up which only digs the hole deeper, while Curtis becomes less supportive of Gerry. Again Reynolds and Mendelsohn are so good in making the conflict between the two very real while still keeping it something very reserved. Reynolds is good in showing that Curtis basically forces himself to perform some tough love to try to snap Gerry out of his mindset, while Mendelsohn shows that his obsession to change his luck is almost impenetrable. Now the film's final act does technically sort of cheat in that Gerry's luck just sort of changes and he gets his life back on track by just doing the same exact thing that knocked him down in the first place. Curtis even joins back in with him, and technically speaking Gerry's gambling problem is basically solved by him gambling until he does just win. Now really one shouldn't let the film get away with this, but I have to admit I don't mind the cheat because of Mendelsohn and Reynolds's performances. The two are so likable together that the last scenes of them just finally winning again just work because you want them to work because Mendelsohn and Reynolds make the friendship work.