VOD film review: Mississippi Grind
The double act8
Over the rainbow8
Mark Harrison | On 16, Mar 2016
Director: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard
A rainbow is the focus of the gorgeous opening image of Mississippi Grind, a movie that goes on to show the seldom-seen unglamorous side of gambling. Its protagonists are the kind of men who chase after such sights, even though they don’t know how or when they’ll ever be rewarded for their efforts.
These men are Gerry (Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Reynolds), two gamblers who meet at a poker table and bond over a lucky game of Texas Hold’em and a couple of glasses of good bourbon. Gerry obsesses over an audio book about reading people so that he can better spot tells, while Curtis attributes his talent at card games to his lack of emotional investment, travelling just to collect new information and people.
Although Gerry is not entirely forthcoming about his bad habit running him into debt with the imperious Sam (Alfre Woodard), he convinces Curtis to come with him on a trip down the Mississippi River to win enough cash to buy into a high stakes game in New Orleans. But in close quarters, their impromptu road trip reveals more of their real character than either intend.
It’s a film that captures the dizzying highs and devastating lows of addiction; writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden previously broached the subject of substance abuse in 2006’s Half Nelson and although Gerry and Curtis knock back an average of one drink per minute of screentime, there’s as much substance to the study of gambling that we get here. It would be terrific even if it were only a character study of two men drifting along the Mississippi, but the script constantly surprises with canny dialogue and tantalising subversions.
More than that, it’s propped up by a pair of outstanding performances from two great actors. Mendelsohn is sweatily pathetic as Gerry, telling us much of what we need to know about his character in his clammy behaviour around those who know him and his resurgent bravado around Curtis. Reynolds is made for this role – the recent Deadpool notwithstanding, he’s been consistently brilliant in smaller films in between being utterly misused in studio features, and this puts his cocky charisma to irresistibly good use as he provides a surprisingly appealing advert for the transient lifestyle.
Their chemistry together is enjoyable but volatile – both characters go to unexpected lengths as the story develops, each of them self-admitted scholars of reading people and avoiding being read by others. Fleck and Boden allow any specifics to come out naturally; there are unspoken volumes in the dynamic between Curtis and his old flame Simone (Miller), an escort who repeatedly proves to be the realist to Reynolds’ romantic. In contrast, alongside these more grounded scenes, Gerry is slightly bowled over by the flattering attentions of Vanessa (Tipton), a much younger woman who is also an escort.
The script tends to side with Simone, as reality continues to impinge upon an adventure that Gerry continually likens to Huckleberry Finn or The Wizard Of Oz, (the rainbow imagery is just the beginning) and our characters continue to react unpredictably. He sees Curtis as his lucky charm and while the writers allow for happy coincidences in a chaotic world in their story, they’re not exactly as bowled over by them as their addicted characters and judging by the dialled-down tone, neither do they expect it of their audience.
But despite its unassuming nature, Mississippi Grind may well bowl you over. It’s the kind of well-cast, well-written film that doesn’t come along too often and is unexpected when it does. The lack of conventional wisdom to the mismatched pair’s voyage looms large as the plot develops to its bittersweet but satisfying conclusion, all with the unpredictable edge that comes with a refreshing lack of glamour and pretension.