Mississippi Grind Review


A breathtaking rainbow at the start of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s gambling drama Mississippi Grind promises gold on the other side. Whether or not the film and its two lead characters — the permanently down-on-his-luck Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and the naturally charming and seemingly care-free Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) — actually get there is something I’ll leave for you to find out, but the film always seems to zag when you expect it to zig, and vice versa. It’s determined to keep you on your toes — the way its characters do to one another — but it does so in the least obtrusive, most genial way possible. There’s tension in Mississippi Grind, but that’s not its m.o. Instead, that’s to share with its viewers the journey of two men who are looking for something they can’t quite define. Watching them take that journey and try to figure out what that thing is? The most surprisingly wonderful pleasure of my 2015 movie year.

We meet Gerry and Curtis at the same place them meet each other — an Iowa poker table. Gerry is quietly raking in chips, while Curtis sits down and blusters his way to bust. They meet again later, swapping stories over Woodford whiskey, and Gerry is completely taken with this man who says he doesn’t care about winning yet seems to have everything he could possibly want. They go to the local dog races and bet on “Dynamic Rainbow.” It’s a winner.

Gerry’s on a real high, but Curtis is getting ready to hit the road again — to New Orleans and the high-stakes poker game of one Tony Roundtree. Facing mounting debt that’s truly about to collapse in on him, Gerry offers to drive Curtis in exchange for a bit of start up money that he can parlay into the $25,000 to play in Roundtree’s game. Taken by the older gentleman’s endearing mix of confidence and recklessness, Curtis agrees. And they’re off.

The film develops such an easygoing rhythm that by its final act, you’ve developed much more of an emotional connection to these two morally questionable (at best) men than you would in a tougher-nosed or less natural movie. The life of a compulsive gambler is one of some ups and more downs, and Mississippi Grind gets at that beautifully and, more importantly, in a way that supports its larger themes. Gambling is a bit of a cipher. It fueled Gerry’s life problems, but they go beyond the tables and the tracks. Curtis, meanwhile, has a whole lot more going on that the film doesn’t explore until late in the game, but for both men, it comes back to happiness as a quality that’s mighty elusive. Watching it slip and slide out of their grasp, which so closely mirrors the viewer’s experience with this film, is delightful.

Ben Mendelsohn’s character isn’t delightful, but his performance is. There’s something about Gerry’s particularly pathetic form of shittiness that makes him awfully endearing. We should all know better, especially as the film ticks along and we learn more about his past, but Mendelsohn’s general droopiness and chronic nervousness are qualities that engender sympathy more often than disgust.

Curtis more or less goes along with Gerry’s plan because he’s curious about the guy and wants to give him a shot. These characters base so many of their decisions on fate and karma, even if these words aren’t explicitly said during the film’s 100 minutes, and Curtis thinks his show of faith in Gerry will turn into good fortune (on a number of levels). Ryan Reynolds is as believable as he’s ever been in the role, which isn’t as superficial as it sounds here or seems early on. He’s a complicated guy, too — one with more self-control than his road-tripping compadre, but he’s got his own demons which aren’t as well-defined but come together in a pair of lovely scenes late in the film. It’s work on par with that of Matt Damon in The Martian — perfect for the actor because of our relationship to him coming in. It’s not the best male performance of 2015 — that’s Mendelsohn’s — but it’s the kind of work Reynolds should be doing a lot more often.

And let’s not overlook one of the best scenes and micro-supporting performances of the year when Alfre Woodard comes along and personifies the consequences of Gerry’s mounting debt. They sit down in a diner like old friends before it turns on a dime when she seems to express concern over his condition. He reassures her that he’s fine, but she’s not done yet. “What’ve you got for me, Gerry?” And he knows he’s in the shit. It’s the film in a nutshell — fascinating characters, wonderful actors, naturalistic writing, a lovely sense of evasiveness.

And subtly great direction from Fleck and Boden. They cut their teeth on smaller-scale productions — Half Nelson, Sugar — that share a strong sense of character with Mississippi Grind (a quality missing in their studio debut, It’s Kind of a Funny Story). “Life’s a long grind,” one character remarks late in their latest film, and everyone else seems to know it. So do Fleck and Boden, and they aren’t concerned with rushing us from one place to the next. The end result is a film that breathes, perhaps more deeply than any other 2015 film. And is there anything more satisfying that a long, deep, relaxed breath? (Maybe one with the taste of Woodford on it? Sure.)

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