* Ben Mendelsohn's been acting since he was a teenager, but most of that's been in his native Australia. While he's done lots of outstanding work there, most Americans haven't been familiar with him until recently, as he started to show up in supporting roles in films like Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines. He finally got a lead role in the television series Bloodline from earlier this year, which basically cemented his wiry, expressive face, straggly hair, and his at once charismatic and dejected voice in the minds of the American people. Now, you can go to a theatre and see him in his first American film lead role in Mississippi Grind from the writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Here playing a compulsive gambler who's losing at all facets of life, Mendelsohn confirms that he's now the master of playing the ignoble type with an alluring mix of charm and melancholy that makes him almost impossible not to feel sympathy for. Mendelsohn's character here is a little less seductive and more self-deprecating than in his usual turns, but even when he's admitting his failures, that he owes everyone, you can't help but be caught under his spell.
* The movie's not all about Mendelsohn though. It's actually a buddy road movie, and his partner in crime is Ryan Reynolds, who plays a young hot-shot who initially seems to just be a playboy who can get whatever he wants but turns out to be a fairly controlled person who, unlike Mendelsohn, seems to know when to put on the brakes. Matt Zoller Seitz beat me to the observation, but it's still worth stressing: one of the film's strokes of genius is having the younger friend be the anchor, the one who makes good decisions (relatively) and has the good advice, while the older, seemingly more experience man is the one whose life and ability to make good judgements is in shambles. There's a lot that's already fairly predictable in the film, which makes a little move like this all the more vital. One more thing about Reynolds: this is probably his best work to date, not because he's been bad in other films, but because he honestly has been taking the wrong roles. I've always thought he had a lot in common with Ryan O'Neill, another pretty-boy who managed to be bring unexpected emotions to his characters when he took on the right dramatic part.
*The film's not perfect as a whole, with Mendelsohn's personal troubles coming across as a bit trite, and the final twenty minutes or so a little too tidy compared to the rest of the film's rambling, extemporized tempo. But in its best moments, usually the quiet ones when Reynolds and Mendolsohn are talking in a bar or when they hook up with some ladies in St. Louis, the film seems completely invested in its characters and the way people talk to each other in real life. The chemistry between the actors is amazing, a little reminiscent of Newman and Redford, who were so good together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that they reunited for the gambling caper The Sting. I guess that means Mendelsohn and Reynolds have to make a Western together next.