This review was originally published during our coverage of TIFF 2015.
Gambling, and likely any other form of addiction, depends on either a heavy dose of delusion, the reckless hopefulness that despite the odds you’ll still come out on top, or a masochistic drive toward self-sabotage. Or else it’s a large helping of both. Mississippi Grind focuses on two individuals who share these characteristics in spades.
There’s Gerry, as portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn, who we meet listening to an audiobook detailing all the various tells that poker players may exhibit. Presumably this is something he spent money on, and presumably it was not worth the money he paid for it, but Gerry is stuck in the addict’s cycle of being in enormous gambling debt, and trying to win back enough to pay his debts via more gambling.
He then meets Curtis, played by Ryan Reynolds, who keeps his cards closer to the vest, so to speak, projecting the life of a high roller with mysterious motivation — he says he likes to gamble out of pure enjoyment, but it’s clear there’s more to it than that.
The pair form a bond over many glasses of whiskey, and they devise a plan to gamble their way to New Orleans where they hope to have enough money to buy into a notorious high stakes poker game, setting our plot in motion. Along the way, new information is revealed, none of it terribly surprising: Gerry is in far more debt than he is letting on, and Curtis seems to have a girl in every town they visit. This is the type of movie that directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have been making since their acclaimed debut Half Nelson, in that it is supremely character-driven, which means that the plot unfolds and we pass through it, rather than it developing as an intricate, purpose-driven story.
In fact, it’s in keeping with the tone of the film that despite their movement through various states towards Louisiana, nothing seems to move all that quickly. The environment is reflective of these southern cities and towns they pass through. Contained within the title of the film itself as well as some visual cues are allusions to the Robert Altman movie California Split, which seems to (or so I’ve read) serve as a source of clear inspiration for Mississippi Grind.
The aesthetic feel of Grind points to this also — its slow-paced progressions and its look, generated from being shot on film, gives it a distinct 1970s vibe. This is in keeping, then, with the places its characters visit, which seem to be relics from the past, filled with blues music and neon signs, refusing to change or update for the sake of modernity. For characters like Gerry and Curtis, who are stuck in their own lifestyle ruts, these places seem to offer some sort of comfort in their old-fashioned familiarity.
Mendelsohn and Reynolds make a surprisingly formidable screen duo. The strength of Mendelsohn’s performance should not surprise anyone remotely familiar with his work; he’s become one of the most reliable character actors in movies and television today. He fits incredibly well in a role that shares only a name with Jerry Lewis, but an identity more in line with Gerry Ford, as he says upon first meeting Curtis. It would be difficult to find an actor who can so acutely capture the emotion of a down-on-his-luck gambler experiencing fleeting happiness, aware of its temporariness, and responding with a mix of dread for the future and trying to enjoy a moment’s joy.
Reynolds may be more surprising to people, because despite a number of strong performances to his name, he still has a reputation defined by what is perhaps a larger number of lacklustre films. In many ways, Reynolds himself may represent a kind of delusion for many of us who hope that one day he will make a film that lives up to his potential as an actor (Deadpool seems to be that white rabbit for comic book fans).
In this film, though, he brings depth to a character that could very easily be played with either steadfast confidence or a transparent lack of it. He’s far more self-aware as an actor than people give him credit for, in my view, and that works here. Despite all the roles he’s taken where he’s meant to be charming through and through, this is a character where his charm is very clearly a cover for this really sad loneliness just below the surface. He’s far more sympathetic and even likeable in a part like this one.
The ending of Mississippi Grind may feel like a letdown to some, but I think that would be in contradiction to a movie that has repeated a mantra of “the journey is the destination” (even though this does come from the mouth of Curtis, and embodies both his longing for, and fear of, personal connection. Still!). It’s not the type of film (for me, at least) that comes together perfectly in retrospect, but one that is strong from scene to scene and presents an experience throughout that is compelling on a character level more than a cathartic one. It’s an ending and an exit that seems designed to inflict a level of satisfaction as elusive as Machu Picchu.
As an addiction story and road movie, Mississippi Grind makes for a good character study that is perfectly content taking its time, as if its destination really is less important than its journey.