(Ana Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2016)
Boden and Fleck are such careful filmmakers, it tends to make their films play at an odd remove. Here they take this scruffy little genre hybrid - two gamblers meet cute, bond, and set off on a road trip to earn some more money, all the while watching their own relationship change and twist with each revelation and decision - and make of it a scrupulously middling indie movie, distinguished mainly by excellent performances by Ryan Reynolds and (especially) Ben Mendelsohn as the gamblers.
They are intelligent directors, and Mississippi Grind pays the right kind of attention to setting and location, so that the film feels thick with place. But even that feels careful, a little by the numbers; there are nicely weighted shots of locations in each town, as if programmed by a computer versed in filmmaking 101. A late reveal of the identity, occupation and character of Reynolds' mother should be crushing, but it feels cynical. The final splurge is refreshing in its outcome, but feels oddly like a coda, after Mendelsohn has earlier shown his truest colours with lies and risks taken to support his gambling habit.
But those performances are worth it; Reynolds showing a melancholy and darkness behind his charm, Mendelsohn all last-chance desperation and blown-out self-awareness. They have genuine chemistry, too. And if overall it never lives up to Altman's California Split, well: what does? More of a problem is how a movie like John Dahl's Rounders feels more alive and full of characters.