Once upon a time, there were legions of male actors who looked like they'd lived not one but several dozen lives — your Lee Marvins, your Robert Mitchums. The ranks of weathered, worked-over dudes have dwindled a bit, though you can still find a few: Tommy Lee Jones shows no sign of slowing down, Jeff Bridges finally aged out of pretty-boy territory and became the crusty character actor he was meant to be, and we'll be checking back with you in a decade, Josh Brolin. But there aren't that many marquee stars or sidekick-players left that suggest years spent in dive bars or an airport terminal's worth of baggage without having to say a word. So when a new one of these types do come along, and they're simultaneously given the perfect vehicle with which to demonstrate they're a major talent, you want to scream hallelujah. Let us now praise flamed-out men.
The second that Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn shows up in Mississippi Grind, trudging through a third-rate casino in search of a poker table to park himself at, you get a whole backstory of hurt, despair and failure emanating off his hangdog face. You might recognize him as the psychotic uncle from the crime thriller Animal Kingdom, or as a corporate fat cat in The Dark Knight Rises, or from any number of peripheral roles as low lifes, meth-heads and fuck-ups. In this buddy dramedy-cum-road movie, he's a middle-aged gambler who finds a soul mate in Ryan Reynolds — the latter of whom may be starting his official Ryanaissance period thanks to his stellar portrayal of a professional smooth talker. But it's Mendelsohn who's the man here, proving he can do sad sack, sensitive loser and small-fry dreamer with a calibrated subtlety that's astounding. You start off simply happy to have discovered the second coming of Warren Oates. You leave the movie feeling that we may now have a new greatest-actor-of-his-generation contender.
Bonding over bourbon and bets at the dog track, Mendelsohn's deflated Gerry and Reynolds' human-charisma-machine Curtis decide to head south; there's a big-stakes card game going down in New Orleans and Gerry needs to get out of town quick, so it's goodbye Iowa and hello NOLA. They figure they can work the action along the Ole Miss and get their pot together, stopping to see a few long-lost girlfriends and bitter ex-wives along the way. Anyone who's imagining a sort of Middle American version of Robert Altman's cult classic California Split is on the money, though directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don't traffic in Seventies funky or sardonic, much less pastiche. What they do, almost better than anyone else in Indiewood, are character studies steeped in regionalism and neo-neorealism: the mix of Brooklyn hipsters and inner city youth in Half Nelson, the corn-belt small town playing host to a Dominican minor-league baseball player in Sugar. And while the duo jettison a specific sense of place here — everywhere from Memphis to the Big Easy basically gets the postcard montage treatment — it actually serves the story better. This is the America you see from the road, a series of interchangeable diners, juke joints and generic gambling dens.
But what these two humanists are truly great at is setting up showcases for actors to stretch out, and the double act they've given Mendelsohn and Reynolds in Grind is a Christmas gift. These guys have a natural rapport and complement each other to a tee, whether they're exchanging boozy barroom philosophies ("Never bet on a dog named after a disabled President") or getting a contact high off of their partner's winning streak. This is what it looks like when two actors work to make the other look better. And while the supporting cast gets the chance to add in grace notes — big up Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton and Deadwood's Calamity Jane herself, Robin Weigert — Mississippi Grind belongs to the bruised-by-life duo at the center of it. Which brings us back to Mendelsohn: What he does with Gerry feels revelatory, less for the character than for his capabilities as a performer. The joys of having finally found a friend, the shame over hitting rock bottom after rock bottom and the eternal hope that a jackpot is just a good hand away — the man makes a meal of it. Give him the requisite psycho roles that he's so adept at. But this proves it's time to start to letting this underused star play at the bigger tables.
A quick word about this year's crop of left-field breakout hits: Substance and originality still trumps style, but there's something to be said for conjuring up a sense of energy and verve. In the case of Dope and Me & the Earl & the Dying Girl, the two big crowd-pleasers that came out of nowhere, the sheer dynamism on display papered over a lot of weak spots and false steps. In the case of the former, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa's story about a high-school geek (Shameik Moore) negotiating life in South Central blasts its John Hughes-in-the-hood tale with a lot of Nineties hip-hop and 21st-century updates of clichés (gang members track down folks with GPS apps on iPads). Before it decides to trade in its imaginative to-be-young-nerdy-and-black take on the coming-of-age chestnut for Tarantinoesque posturing — the second half might as well be called "Dope Fiction" — Famuyiwa's brainy, cartoonish take on what's become a Sundance staple positively crackles. The high just wears off long before the credits roll, but keep an eye out for this guy.
As for Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, the title tips off Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's end game from the get-go: This is The Fault in Our Stars, but for people who like a dose of quirk with their YA weepies. "Me" is Greg (Thomas Mann), a film-obsessed student who flits between cliques. "Earl" is Earl (RJ Cyler), his partner in making parodies of famous movies ("A Sockwork Orange," "Vert'd He Go?") and a character who's just north of being detrimentally underdeveloped. "The Dying Girl" is Rachel (Bates Motel's Olivia Cooke), who's just been diagnosed with leukemia. Does anyone need a map here? It's not giving much away to say that folks needed to wade out of the theater due to the three inches of tears covering the floor, or that Gomez-Rejon's Criterion Collection fetish didn't hit the sweet spot for a lot of attendees. Yes, it's a victim of its own precociousness; yes, of course Fox Searchlight bought it for a small mint; yes, it does announce the arrival of a filmmaker who counts as a big discovery in a festival built on such things. Welcome to the show, sir.