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The Mary Sue at TIFF: Mississippi Grind and The Program

A winner loses and a loser wins.

Mississippi Grind-The Program

Two of the movies I personally was most excited about seeing this awards season have been the Sundance hit Mississippi Grind and Lance Armstrong “biopic” The Program.

Both are directed by some of my favorite directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose personal sensibilities come off the screen more than a lot of filmmakers working today. You get a sense that you know what attracted them to a specific story (whether writing the stories or using other’s scripts), and that their approach to them is unique. Others might have taken an interest, but it wouldn’t have been the same movie without their strong hands behind the camera.

The movies also feature two of my favorite (and most consistent) working character actors in leading roles…both of whom give stellar performances which are completely different from anything you’ve seen from them before. While Ben Mendelsohn goes more internal than we’ve seen from the Australian veteran, the usually reserved Ben Foster goes bigger than we’ve probably ever seen.

Mississippi Grind is a road movie about two gamblers trying to hit one big score. There is drifter Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who is great at gambling, and pathetic gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) who seems to have been living off fumes a little too long. Gerry’s addiction is sending him to rock bottom…he’s broke, clearly about to lose his job, and has lost his wife and daughter due to his habits (which also cause him to lie and steal). But he doesn’t see the bottom, and instead suggests that he and Curtis (his good luck charm) hit all the games they can while going to a bigger game in New Orleans to score a mother-load so he can rid himself of all his debts. I know, this idea seemed especially stupid to me too…getting out of gambling debts through gambling is not a logical way to view the world, but that is what Gerry is such a pathetic character.

Mississippi Grind is getting a lot of comparisons to a 70s gambling film called California Split (another great movie about male relationships), and the film feels a bit like something we would have seen come out in the 70s. But the movie’s focus on the men’s dangerously symbolic relationship and addictions has shade of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. It’s an odd role for Mendelsohn, who after becoming a bit of go-to actors for villains, is playing someone so small, sad, and helpless. Even when it feels like enabling, you can’t help but have just enough sympathy for him to want to see him get better…but the question really is, would it be better for him to win or lose everything? And while there is some menace in the performance, it always seems like the figurative gun in his hand is more likely to go off pointed at himself than anyone else around him. Is he a good man in his soul and heart? Probably. But that probably doesn’t mean much in his real life.

Arguably, Mendelsohn is the primary reason to seek the film out. It is absolutely a 5 star performance. But, there are a lot of good things to say about the movie. For one, I think this might be the best use of Ryan Reynolds ever in a movie. I’ve never been a HUGE fan of his acting, but as a personality, I completely understand his success. And the charm and warmth he does radiate is on full display here as we see Gerry sucked into his aura.

Sienna Miller gives a solid but oddly brief performance as Curtis’s “girlfriend”  Simone, which seems like something was left on the cutting room floor. Meanwhile, Analeigh Tipton comes out swinging with the best scene in the movie, getting to know Gerry while Curtis is with Simone, proving she is still being underused in Hollywood. And it is always nice to see veterans Alfred Woodard and Robin Weigert have meaty scenes in movies…brief, yes, but definitely meaty.

Boden and Fleck are a fantastic team and understand how to write scenes for the characters which feel revealing, even when not saying a lot directly. And after faulting with their last film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, they are back with the confident awareness of people which made them excellent directors. And I don’t remember a movie that captured the real problem for gambling addicts in a movie this well…that the highs of winning is something you can only experience when you see yourself as a loser.

From a movie about a loser trying to win, to the movie about a man who KNEW he was a winner, is The Program. The film is the long awaited biopic we even hear about in the movie, when discussing whether Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal should play Lance. Ironically, the perfect actor to play the role was Ben Foster, who would earn this year’s Nightcrawler award for his creepy, unhinged, sociopathic performance as Armstrong.

As he becomes more and more deluded by his own success, he ramps up this behavior, talking to himself in the third person, practicing lies, and teaching and planning the most scientific way to lie and cheat. And Ben Foster’s performance as Lance Armstrong, half recreation, half interpreted performance, is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, he goes big, but because Foster is such a fine actor, he makes Armstrong seem like the real person. From the moment we first meet him, talking open and honestly about his desire to win, we see him covering that earnestness with lie upon lie until the man we met is nothing more than a shell. Foster’s come along way from TV shows like Flash Forward.

Chris O’Dowd is excellent as Walsh…I just wish we had even more of his character so his sudden narration felt a bit more organic to the film. Guillaume Canet, as the doctor who developed the scientific program, is a standout in his hilarious performance.

The movie also looks fantastic, from the unusually bright colors to the hilariously flashy editing. And the bike sequences are all great. Personally, I think the mechanics of cycling make the sport conducive to good film…between Breaking Away, The Flying Scotsman, and now this, we need more biking movies.

The Program seems to be one of the more divisive films at the festival this year. Even the nature and tone of the film is up for questioning. Personally, I think this is a satire (as a lot of Stephen Frears’ films are). After all, the screenwriter is also responsible for writing Trainspotting, which works best as a satire, rather than a melodrama.

I fully expected the film to be a serious (perhaps overly serious) drama, but was laughing pretty hard through a lot of it. The film documents Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall in the cycling world, due to doping, while being investigated by journalist David Walsh. Armstrong becomes increasingly obsessive with winning, maintaining the lies, and being a celebrity. It wasn’t the cheating that made his downfall so great, it was the grand deception of making his entire person into something so completely different from who he was. This is probably my favorite Frears film since The Grifters.

After 5 days of watching movies (a lot of which haven’t really lived up to expectations), to have a film this highly anticipated more than live up to and go beyond my expectations says a lot about how purely entertaining it is. After some serious thought about why it hit me so strongly and had me thinking about it the day after, here is the conclusion I’ve come to. The Program is A Face in the Crowd of sports movies, in the way it reflects back on what a persona really is, and how that reflects the bigger issues we see in media, politics, and society.

Both these films are excellent and two of the best (and most enjoyable) movies I’ve seen so far this year. But the performances by both Bens are really what stand out as making the films extraordinary and what festival audiences will remember about them. Each actor does the all-important thing of making a character truly his own, from the inside out, so you can’t imagine another actor taking it on. Expect to hear more about both later this year when awards season is underway.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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