Mississippi Grind is a film that’s doomed to come and go with little fanfare, and it’s a total shame because this seemingly dismissible movie is good, bordering on great. While it’s difficult at times (nothing on this earth is more upsetting than watching a helpless addict be a helpless addict), it’s a strong character study featuring sturdy performances from Ben Mendelsohn, who is consistently stellar, and Ryan Reynolds who, in the right role, is a much better actor than we give him credit for.
Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a troubled gambling addict who owes a lot of people a lot of money. He’s a nice guy, but he’s powerless against his addiction. Enter Reynolds as Curtis, another gambler who seems to have it all. He’s the cool to Gerry’s homeliness, he drinks top shelf bourbon, and he always seems to win. What’s his secret? According to him, he doesn’t care about winning, and as a result has no tells at the poker table. Gerry sees Curtis as a sort of lucky charm, and the two become fast friends. When pressure to pay his debts starts to come down on Gerry, he and Curtis decide to take a road trip down to New Orleans, hitting every casino or card game along the way. If all goes well, Gerry can pay his debts. As for Curtis, he just likes the ride.
Of course, there is much more to this boozy mood piece, but it’s the metered pace and relaxed sensibility through which revelations are exposed that makes the film so enjoyable. Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck make good on the promise of their earlier film, Half Nelson, by giving us a challenging story of equal depth while also showing how much they’ve advanced as visual filmmakers. No, this isn’t a film that pops, and that’s a good thing. There’s a warmth to it that makes hanging out with the central characters purely entertaining, even when things get dark. Their soft visual style captures the dreaminess of a long road trip, and it keeps the narrative close. Many a film about addiction places the addict at the center and invites us to watch at arms length, but Mississippi Grind welcomes us into the story, and is that much more effective for it.
There are a few moments which raise questions that do not have clear answers, and it all leads to an ending that felt at the time to be preposterous, but as the film sits in my memory, it’s these ambiguous character moments that resonate most, and the ending turns the film into a parable about fate, friendship, and the innate human need to connect with something, anything, even if it destroys us. There’s a lot to chew on here, and the conversations that stem from it are very worth having.
On that note, I should probably add that the film isn’t all downer drama, and is actually quite funny and joyful, even at the characters’ most pitiable moments, and it features a rockin’ soundtrack of classic southern blues.
Like I said before, this film is doomed to be seen by few, but I strongly suggest that you take a gamble on it (see what I did there? I’m INCREDIBLE). You’ll be pleasantly surprised, and you’ll be talking about it for a long while.
Mississippi Grind opens today at the PFS Roxy theater.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.