While their past features, like Half Nelson and Sugar, examine human fallibility within the scope of noble vocations, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s latest concentrates squarely on bad people with worse habits. There’s no real glamour to problem gambling, and Mississippi Grind doubles down on that truth, turning the underrated Ben Mendelsohn into a human PSA for ludomania.

Aussie Mendelsohn, one of those versatile and indelibly magnetic “that guys” who’s finally starting to stand out stateside, is Gerry, a downtrodden real estate agent who doesn’t care about anything but the action. In deep with a bunch of small-town bookmakers — Alfre Woodard, as a sweetie-pie soccer mom who also happens to be a cutthroat creditor, kills in her single scene — he’s run out of options. Then he meets fast-talking Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) over a hand of hold ’em. He agrees to bankroll Gerry on a marathon run from Iowa to New Orleans, though it’s never really clear why.

The road-warrior exchanges between the strangers, alternating between brotherly and cryptic, help make intentions clear: Curtis is playing the odds on Gerry, while Gerry obsesses over his chances on the table or track. Both lie ahead of various ends; both consider rebuilding relationships they’ve selfishly ruined. That’s Grind at its weakest, over-explaining that desperate men have no standards when it comes to their conduct. Fleck and Boden, dispatching their two leads so efficiently, are at their strongest when illustrating delusion. Their America is damp, dark and artificially lit, a rust-caked wastebin filled with bottomed-out dreams. Yet here are Gerry and Curtis, reading every vapid detail as a guarantee that their next roll will be their best one.

City Paper grade: B