Down on his luck and facing financial hardship, Gerry teams up with younger charismatic poker player, Curtis, in an attempt to change his luck. The two set off on a road trip through the South with visions of winning back what’s been lost.
There have been many films about gambling over the years, but few manage to capture the seductive quality of the lifestyle, nor manage to effectively convey the sheer high of a big win or the crushing low of a loss as well as ‘Mississippi Grind’. Beyond some of the older films I’ve yet to see (and James Toback’s ‘The Gambler’ has been cited as a reference point by this film’s directors), Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Hard Eight’ (released as ‘Sydney’ in some territories) is probably the only other film I’d mention. The strengths and weaknesses of ‘Mississippi Grind’ are both in this meticulous approach to the subject matter, with the film struggling to gain my interest at the outset before stepping up a gear as its themes and messages get to the forefront.
Anchoring the film are two superb performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as an odd couple of men drawn to the gambling lifestyle. Reynold’s Curtis is all swagger and charm and he looks like a winner, whereas Mendelsohn’s Gerry has the demeanour of a loser. When Gerry confesses to Curtis about his financial issues, Curtis offers to stake him some money to help him change his luck, and the two set off on a road trip along the Mississippi, taking in many casinos and grimey bars along the way. Mendelsohn has been arguably the best character actor of recent times and he relishes a rare leading role here, delivering a vulnerable yet quietly charismatic turn as a man believing the only way to get out of his gambling problems is to gamble further. Mendelsohn is one of these actors that slinks so effortlessly into a role – he could play George or Lenny in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and you’d buy him completely as both. Opposite him, Ryan Reynolds does some of his finest work, drawing on his boyish good looks and charisma to play Curtis, and he’s perfect for a character who’s all surface, with trouble bubbling underneath.
It takes a while to get going but the film excels in the interplay between Curtis and Gerry which gradually draws out details that help to paint in the stories of the two men. At times, this is deeply depressing and will feel all too real to anyone who’s chased a loss or kept going after a win only to lose it all. The pain and hurt that gambling can cause is burned into the character’s and in turn, into the audience – I’ve yet to see a film that has articulated the intense highs and lows so clearly. In that sense, it feels a bit disappointing in how the narrative pans out, and I felt there were a couple of occasions when the film could have finished earlier on a more satisfying note than it ultimately does, but it doesn’t take away from the overall experience.
‘Mississippi Grind’ is a pure gambling movie that really gets at the heart of what drives the kind of men that spend their lives chasing the ultimate high and dealing with the devastating lows. Well directed with some wonderful cinematography, the film is driven by two excellent performances from Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, and this is a solidly enjoyable watch.
Directed By: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Robin Weigert and Alfre Woodard