"A slow yet provocative character study of men addicted to gambling.”
A sad-sack poker loser brings along his new-found friend and good-luck charm for a high-stake New Orleans game in Mississippi Grind. This bittersweet slacker road movie from director-screenwriter tandem Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck is a character-driven contemplation on how much one can bet on love, life and destiny.
In the film’s opening scene, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) walks into a casino, ushers himself into a poker table, and strikes a genial conversation with Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) as he buys him a bourbon. A handsome gentleman at thirty-something, Curtis has an irresistible charisma and the air of someone who is always lucky and who easily gets everything, even when he does not want them. Gerry is Curtis’ exact opposite. Creased face, haggard-looking and unhappy at 44, Gerry lives alone with a cat, drinks too much, works as a third-rate real estate broker during the day and spends the night playing and losing at poker. No wonder, he is buried with gambling debts courtesy of a local loan shark (Alfre Woodard).
So when he begins a tentative friendship with Curtis that night, Gerry feels his luck will soon change. Dauntingly, he persuades Curtis to embark with him on a $25,000-stake gambling trip to New Orleans. The journey is filled with booze, girls, card games, racetracks and billiards, but most of all, it becomes an opportunity for each to re-examination their individual and the other’s lives.
Mississippi Grind is a measured, meandering and lethargic character study. Two key players are involved here and in spite of their palpable differences, they find the other a compatible and suitable companion in their sudden gambling trip which turns out to be more of a life-changing quest. Curtis is a confident, free-spirited and happy-go-lucky drifter. He has good judgments when it comes to gambling but winning is not his game; he simply wants to play and have fun. On the surface, he seems rootless and unbounded, carrying no emotional baggage and deep longings. However, the trip opens him up and little by little, he exposes his loneliness and disappointments. Their first stop is St. Louis where he is able to reconnect with Simone (Sienna Miller), a bar hostess who is his intermittent girlfriend. He loves her but self-doubt and dreams of travelling to Peru hinder him. When later he visits his club singer mother (Marshall Chapman), Curtis further reveals himself as a man who deeply values the women in his life. After starring in various romantic comedies and action hero films, Reynolds comes as a wonderful surprise as he exudes the depth and layers of a man who appears full and bouyant yet secretly feeling empty.
On the other hand, Gerry is the type who is so used with his unlucky streak that gambling becomes an uncontrollable addiction. He does not know when to quit and he can risk all he has in one bet. His impulsive gambling pushes him to be manipulative and a habitual liar, evident with how he makes excuses and tall tales when the truth is inconvenient. In one acute scene, he reunites with his ex-wife (Robin Weigert) but his reflexes kick in and he attempts to sneak a few bills from her purse. Though nothing much is said, it is still clear how he became a failure both as a husband and a father to their daughter. Along the trip, he strikes a fleeting flirtatious moment with Simone’s friend, Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton), but he is too worked up with his past that moving forward is too difficult for him. Mendelsohn, with his wrecked physicality and wretched aura, is a good fit for Gerry.
Mississippi Grind artfully uses gambling as a means to explore an unlikely friendship that can be a major factor in shaping one’s destiny. Acknowledging their differences, both lead figures are cautious of each other, deceiving one other alternately in order to secure their individual interests but always end up coming back together, fuelled by genuine affection and need for a kindred spirit. Both are self-destructive and wishful, but both also have big elusive dreams that a windfall can duly satisfy.
Technical aspects of the film also play well. Jazzy blues and country-and-western songs are abundant, delivered beautifully by vocal, guitar and piano pieces. Set is appropriately designed such as the grimy pool halls, seedy hotels, dark bar rooms, adrenaline-inducing racetracks and the worn-out establishments. Tight close-ups and slow zooms are also employed, creating a feeling of closeness to the characters.
However, the film is not for everybody as commercial aspect is not strong. It may be too relaxed and languid for mainstream viewers, although there are tinges of humor and scenes that warm up. It is also meandering for almost two hours and its lack of momentum and tension may be discouraging. Patience is a must here. Lastly, the movie ends in a hazy note, leaving the audience to decide if the man turns to a new direction or continues down the same road.
Mississippi Grind is a measured and winding study of men whose layers are piecemeal unearthed in an unexpected gambling journey. It is skilfully written and superbly delivered by its actors, particularly by Reynolds and Mendelsohn.
Production companies: Sycamore Pictures, Electric City Entertainment, in association with Gowanus Projections
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Robin Weigert, Alfre Woodard, James Toback
Director-screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producers: Tom Rice, Ben Nearn, Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell
Executive producers: John Lesher, Randall Emmett, George Furla, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Jade Healy
Costume designer: Abby O’Sullivan
Music: Scott Bomar
Editor: Anna Boden