This road movie about two gambling addicts – one young, suave and incapable of settling down, the other a degenerate with racked-up debts whose wife has long since bailed with their daughter in tow – feels at times like a blast from the past, a 70’s-style character study that flows south along the titular river before eventually climaxing in New Orleans with the kind of win-or-bust ending that has been done many, many times before — see The Hustler, Rounders, California Split, etc. That latter work by Robert Altman is probably the closest cousin to this new film by writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who made Half Nelson a decade ago, though they also nod to the original version of The Gambler by including its writer James Toback in a brief cameo. It’s clearly set in the present, but Mississippi Grind is imbued with a distinctly retro look that further recalls the not-too-distant past: the casinos, bars, racetracks and pool halls often used as locations have all seen better days, for example, while a sole reference to Justin Timberlake is offset by a number of montages containing nicely-framed shots of old eateries and other crumbling establishments as the duo travel down to St. Louis, Mobile, Memphis and beyond. The film stock used, with its lustrous primary colours in dimly lit bars and grain-heavy shadows, also goes some way to recalling the 1970s and the general look of the American New Wave.
The two men, who meet in Dubuque, Iowa before travelling south, are played by Ryan Reynolds – typically cocksure – and Ben Mendelsohn, who continues to impress and unsurprisingly has no problem stepping up from his recent eye-catching supporting roles to a lead performance. They meet in a casino, naturally: Reynolds’ Curtis lays the charm on thick and Mendelsohn’s Gerry, desperate enough to believe he has chanced upon a lucky charm, comes over all doe-eyed. Within a day or two they’ve hatched a plan to raise enough money to play in a high stakes poker game in Louisiana, and shortly thereafter they set off (Curtis with no ties to the area, Gerry eager to walk away from his job and his debts). The obvious question is why would Curtis, who appears to be doing quite well for himself as he moves from state to state, pick a down-on-his luck kinda guy like Gerry as a gambling partner, presenting him with $2,000 to use as buy-in funds? Perhaps an innocuous scene where the pair back a longshot at the dog track provides the answer; it seems that the chances of Gerry winning big in New Orleans are similarly low, and Curtis simply gets more of a thrill when the outsider he backs goes on to win. Curtis remains something of a mystery throughout, though the writers slowly and skilfully turn the loser/winner axis on its head as one character nears his home while the other moves further away from his, and while we discover that Curtis isn’t quite the success he initially seems it also becomes apparent that Gerry isn’t exactly the completely pliable sap of the first act either.
As far as gambling films go we see less of the card games that Gerry partakes in than you might expect. Certainly with regard to the first two acts it’s all stripped back to just one hand (and one main opponent), which means that by the time Fleck and Boden serve up the casino-set finale you’re not sick to death of watching people looking at their cards while seated at nondescript green tables. When we do see the poker or blackjack being played Boden’s editing speeds up the action via a series of quicker cuts, and although it’s easier to follow if you know the rules of the games in question, such knowledge isn’t essential; it’s always clear who wins and who loses, which is the most important thing. This all enables the focus to stay on the two principal characters, and how each of them feels about the other, the relationship changing the longer they stay together. Neither man can be trusted: Gerry’s lack of a moral compass ensures the viewer completely understands why he has no friends or family left to turn to, while Curtis stitches his partner up on a couple of occasions and continually makes empty promises to on-off girlfriend Simone (Sienna Miller).
Though I’m not (and hopefully never will be) a gambling addict, Mississippi Grind seems like it’s reasonably susccessful in terms of getting into the mindset of the kind of people who can’t walk away from a bet or a game, even if they’ve just lost big. The two leads do well to keep you onside with their characters’ respective quests for riches, despite some of their decisions, and though the film doesn’t really have anything new to say about addiction, or even the fabled search for the American Dream (the billowing flag reflected in a car window at the end is an unnecessary and heavy-handed touch), it’s still an enjoyable drama and worth checking out. There are some interesting motifs running through the film, most notably the use of rainbows (and by association what lies at their end) and body language, while there’s also a suitably invigorating delta blues-heavy soundtrack, with attendant song lyrics repeatedly reminding us about loss, bad luck and men being left by their loved ones. The one shame is that several reasonably-interesting female characters (played by the likes of Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard and Marshall Chapman) are all quickly established and then, with the exception of Miller’s Simone, completely forgotten about, though this is perhaps in keeping with the way the two self-centred men at the heart of the story appear to be travelling through the country, and through life.
Directed by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck.
Written by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck.
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Marshall Chapman.
Cinematography: Andrij Parekh.
Editing: Anna Boden.
Music: Scott Bomar, Various.
Running Time: 108 minutes.