This movie looked a little clichéd by its trailer and it is, in some ways, but it’s a pure pleasure and a must-see. Always excellent character actor Ben Mendelsohn gets the lead role here, a hang-dog, down-on-his-luck, sad-sack gambler, a sad, weary man who’s lost so often he’s forgotten what you do when you win. So when a rare winning streak coincides with the arrival of a slick, out of town gambler/charmer, played by Ryan Reynolds, Mendelsohn decides he’s found a good luck charm and the two set off across the American South, on their way to a legendary poker game in New Orleans. It’s a pleasure to see a great character actor get a chance at a lead and Mendelsohn is wonderful. But, bizarre as it sounds, Reynolds, an actor I’ve never liked, steals the movie. Earlier this year, he gave a surprisingly solid performance in Woman in Gold, but here he’s beyond wonderful. At first, he’s a somewhat typical affable charmer. But as the film moves on, we start to see the sad hunger behind his wide grins and there’s a scene at a race track that is acting like I have never seen from Reynolds, a slow, wordless, very minimal slide into despair as the camera lingers on his face. Sienna Miller is quite good in a supporting role as an ex-lover of Reynolds and Analeigh Tipton, a fine young actress who stole the show in Warm Bodies a couple of years back, is marvelous as a wan, waifish escort the duo encounter. And Robin Weigert has a wonderful cameo as Mendelsohn’s ex-wife, a really brutal scene. The film has some polish and it’s certainly entertaining, but there’s an extended section of the film where the emotional pain of these two men becomes almost unbearable. But it’s their friendship, unlikely though it is, that is the heart of the film. The movie falters at the end, providing a somewhat protracted climax and resolutely tying things up far, far too neatly. There’s a scene where the film really should end, a nearly wordless scene of the two men in a casino that has just the right tone, a sense of the true friendship that’s been forged and a quiet sense of excitement that’s just ambiguous enough to leave you pondering. But the film proceeds to fall into cliché after that scene; had the film ended ten minutes before it did, it would have been perfect. But I loved the journey of this film so much, reveled in the rich performances, rode the emotional roller coaster . . . well, I can’t get to bent out of shape. It’s still a must-see. 4 stars.
tl;dr – exquisite performances elevate this evocative, emotionally wrenching tale of two gamblers forging an unlikely friendship; only flaw: disappointing ending wraps things up too neatly. 4 stars.