Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Robin Weigert, James Toback
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 9/25/15 (limited); 10/2/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 1, 2015
On its surface, Mississippi Grind is a familiar story of a road trip taken up by two characters who are polar opposites. One man is a perennial loser who doesn't know when to stop losing, and the other man is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants winner who doesn't care about winning. As one might expect, the film details the multitude of ways in which these characters are different and the few but critical ways in which they are alike, but it doesn't satisfy itself with those points. Screenwriters/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck take the time to examine each of these men as individuals, exploring how they exist in the unforgiving world of gambling and even delving into the question of why they are the way they are.
The quality they share is an insatiable addiction to gambling. Even their means of satisfying that addiction are different. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), the desperate loser of the pair, prefers the usual games—craps, roulette, blackjack, and especially the Texas hold 'em variety of poker. He plays a CD listing 200 poker tells whenever he drives in his car, dedicating them to memory and imagining some hypothetical opponent putting them into practice.
The film's most intriguing and insightful observation comes in regards to the object of addiction for Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a nomadic roamer with a woman/place to crash at every stop and a penchant for taking things as they come to him (At one point, he plans to go to New Orleans, but after winning tickets to a basketball game in Chicago, he takes an out-of-the-way detour). His addiction is to gambling on people. It's not just any people, mind you, but losers such as Gerry.
There's a sense of altruism to his addiction at first, as he tells stories of staking other gamblers for their big, redemptive stint at a poker table. That part of the story isn't what excites him, though. Curtis seems to take great pleasure in the moment of defeat—how some sad sack had all the money he wanted or needed in his hands but decided to make one more bet.
Some people don't know when to stop winning, he explains to Gerry. It's a sage piece of advice for this particular man, who, as he puts it, is in debt to "everyone."
Is it really a lesson that Curtis is trying to impart, or is it a dare? If it's the latter, is he hoping that Gerry will be the one perpetual loser who proves him wrong, or is he betting that Gerry will just become the subject of another one of his stories, to tell to some new loser down the line? Are Curtis' motives sincere, or does he really take some kind of twisted gratification in giving a man the noose with which to hang himself? Yes, Curtis might be thinking, he has it bad, but at least it's not as bad as that guy who had it all and lost it because he couldn't help himself.
Boden and Fleck, then, provide this story with two dramatic questions. The first is whether or not Gerry can redeem himself, winning enough money during a road trip from his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, to New Orleans in order to pay off his debts (Alfre Woodard plays the woman trying collect on those debts completely against expectations—discussing her kids and familial obligations before politely suggesting that some goon will be paying Gerry a visit the next day). The second question is entirely about Curtis—his motivation and his goal. The tension here is in trying to determine if the characters' respective aims complement or contradict each other.
Mendelsohn and Reynolds provide truly great performances here. Mendelsohn's Gerry ("Like Lewis," Curtis asks; "Like Ford," Gerry replies) is as desperate as losers come, and there's a constant sense of him silently trying to justify his every wrong action—just one more bet, just a bit more money, just one little sign that luck is on his side (He's convinced that Curtis and a rainbow, which both men saw upon the morning of the first meeting, are charms in his favor). Whenever an opportunity arises for what he sees as a good bet, he becomes frantic, unless he's at the poker table, in which case his mug is unshakeable.
He's also a pathological liar who will only tell whichever half of the truth will get him what he wants. There are elements of tragedy and comedy in this character and in this performance, and in that regard, Mendelsohn and Gerry are the heart of this film, which plays out as a tragic comedy in one moment and comic tragedy in the next. A predictably regrettable but highly informative reunion with his ex-wife (Robin Weigert) shows us everything we knew about Gerry, but the scene takes those qualities to depressing ends.
Reynolds' Curtis ("Like Tony," Gerry asks; "Like Mayfield," Curtis responds, which, when compared to the fools who come to mind in regards to Gerry, is a clever little joke among some really crackling dialogue) is a cool customer through and through. Nothing seems to get to him, except when it comes to Simone (Sienna Miller), a professional escort in St. Louis with whom Curtis has a history and, if he can get past some things, possibly a future. Reynolds is effortlessly charismatic in the role, but there's a hint of malice, disdain, and/or judgment that comes through in his view of Gerry. We can't quite tell if Curtis is the charmer or the snake.
It's not quite that simple, though, because Boden and Fleck understand that these two characters feed off of each other's personalities, while fueling the addiction that unifies them. The film only genuinely falters in its string of resolving scenes (We learn some vital things, such as the extent of Curtis' need to bet on a loser and the subtle way the crux of Gerry's character is revealed in his meal choice, but many of the late scenes feel more uncertain than everything else in the film). Mississippi Grind is a tough, unflattering, but incredibly perceptive character study.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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