Mississippi Grind offers a new take on gambling and road trip movies, putting aside the glitz and glamour for a deeper, heavier, more human focus.
Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a gambling addict with debts and bad blood all over town who meets the charming Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) at a poker match and strikes up a friendship. A few chance events convince Gerry that Curtis is his lucky charm, and the two men embark on a gambler’s journey down the Mississippi to earn the buy-in for a huge poker tournament run by a mysterious friend of Curtis.
Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) have given Mendelsohn the chance at a heavy, powerful performance, and he holds nothing back. Watching Gerry struggle with his addiction is heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching, and incredibly difficult to watch, and both Mendelsohn and the directors have done a fantastic job at showing the darker side of gambling and the problems addicts struggle with. Gerry’s relationship with Curtis is also played out to perfection, with the two men playing off each other with energy and power.
The perfect complement to Gerry, Ryan Reynolds plays Curtis with surprising depth and his performance is so nuanced that it makes the character difficult to pin down, making the plot that much harder to predict. It’s never really explained what Curtis’ deal is, and that ambiguity suits the film’s complexity perfectly. His interactions with Simone (Sienna Miller) offer some insight into his backstory but are at times painful to watch, as he offers to ‘save’ her from her life as a sex worker despite not being able to save himself from his shady, unstable gambler’s lifestyle. Sienna Miller also navigates these scenes efficiently, but her character is not given nearly the time she deserves and she vanishes from most of the second half of the film. The same can be said of Yvonne Landry’s Louise, Gerry’s ex-wife who steals the show for a single scene then disappears from the movie completely once she’s no longer relevant to Gerry’s story.
Similarly, Alfre Woodard appears for all of one scene, delivers a stellar performance, and is never seen or referred to again. She exists only to demonstrate the trouble that Gerry has gotten himself into, which is disappointing given the intrigue and charisma she brings to the role. This vanishing act seems mostly due to the film’s determination to showcase Mendelsohn and his especially challenging role, and it certainly handles his story with finesse and skill.
Unlike many other films that focus on gambling, Mississipi Grind refuses to glamorise the pastime. Instead, it shows (painfully and realistically) the struggles of a gambling addict who doesn’t know when to quit or walk away, and the misery they bring down on themselves and their loved ones. In many ways the film is a roadtrip movie, but one that eschews the chance at playing out like an ad for Mississippi tourism, to focus instead on showing the urban decay and the harshness of the post-financial-crisis world in Middle America. Boden and Fleck have chosen to focus on a different side of the cities the men blow through: a more desperate side, a sadder side, a side that they refuse to romanticise. This adds much-needed weight to the story, while offering some starkly beautiful cinematography and a strong sense of place.
The bluesy soundtrack, too, perfectly captures the struggling, desperate, down-on-their-luck feel of both the men themselves and the cities they visit, and Marshall Chapman’s cameo as a dive-bar blues singer hammers home the harshness of the world the men are journeying through.
Overall, Mississippi Grind shows us a darkly beautiful yet unmistakeably sad side of Middle America, and manages to offer a fresh, honest take on the old standards of road trip movies and gambling films. While it does feel a little slow in places, this is a solid film carried by brilliant performances and a strong soundtrack and is well worth a watch while you wait for the next Tom Waits album.
Mississippi Grind is now showing at Cinema Nova. For session times and tickets visit cinemanova.com.au
Published December 18, 2015