I’m not usually a fan of gambling movies, mainly because I’m rubbish at maths and can never understand the odds. However, Mississippi Grind neatly bypasses the issue by focussing on two fascinating characters and largely ignoring the mechanics of gaming rules in favour of examining the psychology of the players.
The following review was originally published on the new defunct Grolsch site.
Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has cornered the market for creeps, weirdos, and losers. Mississippi Grind’s sad sack gambler Gerry sits towards the loser end of Mendelssohn’s full-house of acting skills but there is humanity and warmth here that sets Gerry apart from his roles in Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly and Starred Up.
Skilled at reading the ‘tells’ of other players (the subtle micro expressions by which a player reveals their hand) Gerry’s problem is he always goes for the big win when the odds are not in his favour. He believes he has bad luck, but he is an addict. At the end of his credit line Gerry owes ‘a lot’ to ‘everybody’ he discloses to Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) a poker player drifting through town.
The men are chalk and cheese, Curtis gambles for fun, quits ahead, and has money to burn. Gerry is fascinated because he cannot find Curtis’ tell. The younger man explains this is because he doesn’t care if he loses. Too flighty and easily bored to be a great poker player, Curtis recognises Gerry’s skill and commits to provide him with a small stake. They plan to travel to Louisiana hitting gambling dens on the way to work up a $25,000 buy-in for a private poker game Curtis knows of.
Mississippi Grind unfolds in beige smoke-stained lounges littered with torn betting slips, neon lit bars, and casino floors brightly lit with false promise. You can smell the despair. Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who previously made Half Nelson) the film harks back to American dramas like Fat City, Five Easy Pieces, or Midnight Cowboy. Character based movies, unafraid to examine social milieus far below the middle and upper classes.
In narrative terms Mississippi Grind is as meandering is the titular river. Boden and Fleck’s screenplay is full of sharp lines, but its greatest achievement is crafting two compelling characters. Gerry is an open sore, feelings on display, desperation obvious. Curtis is more mysterious. This kind of character is Mendelsohn’s bread and butter but there is no actor among his contemporaries as good at this.
An actor whose stock has fallen due to a stream of failed franchise movies, Reynolds makes Curtis charismatic but also guarded. One of the fascinations of the film is in trying to decipher his character from guarded hints and snatches of whispered phone calls. Is he working a long con on Gerry? The path of their relationship over the film is far from straight, and much more complicated than bro meets bro, bro loses bro, bro gets bro back.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its loose and freewheeling style, if you engage with these characters then the film works its way under your skin. Beautifully shot by Andrij Parekh and generously served with a hot blues soundtrack, Mississippi Grind won’t be for everyone, but for those willing to twist rather than stick it comes up with a pair of aces.