Mississippi Grind is a new film starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, but it feels like it should already be celebrating its 40th anniversary. With all the trademarks of Hollywood cinema from the ’70s, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made a delightfully simple film that is now a rare American entertainment: a slow character piece driven by strong writing and good performances. Mississippi Grind owes a lot more to the original The Gambler than the remake with Mark Wahlberg. Essentially, that’s all you need to know.
Gerry (Mendelsohn), a loser who steals from friends to fuel his gambling addiction, and Curtis (Reynolds), a charmer who will even bet on if a man turning the corner will have glasses, are layered individuals, people you could see yourself talking to. A deadbeat father, a consistent boozer and a thief: we don’t know Gerry’s past but it’s easy to see how he got here.
Gambling, just like most addictions, is fueled by myths. Alcohol will make you feel better. Drugs will get rid of the pain. And for Gerry, putting thousands of dollars into casinos will lead to wealth and happiness. He thinks poker, roulette and black jack are like buying Apple stocks in the early 2000s, but what he doesn’t know is that it’s actually more like having shares in Enron around that same time. For Gerry, gambling is hardly a gamble – we know he’s going to lose. Owing the local loan shark a considerable amount of money, he is drowning in debt, so when Curtis offers him a few thousand dollars to hit all the casinos on a road trip across a few states, he sees it as an opportunity to make some cash and pay back his debt.
Boden and Fleck have crafted yet another character-driven drama bolstered by outstanding performances. In 2007, they directed Ryan Gosling to an Oscar nomination as a formidable teacher with a deplorable lifestyle in Half Nelson, and now, Mendolsohn’s performance in Mississippi Grind seems to do more than that. He feels regret as he wrongfully acts. He understands his tragic flaws as he continually makes the wrong decisions. Where we felt for Gosling’s character because of his gentleness and kindness, Mendolsohn’s Gerry has none of these virtues, and yet, we still feel for him.
After being unfortunately miscast in the insufferable Woman In Gold, and giving a solid performance in the rickety The Captive, it’s become clear that Ryan Reynolds has tried to revitalize his career by taking chances. Cocky, fragile but also even-headed, Reynolds gives Curtis nuances that more recent gambling flicks (like Will Smith’s Focus and Mark Wahlberg’s The Gambler) lacked. The performances make the addiction, which has recently been used as an easy plot device for building tension, an expression of two souls in need.
The screenplay by Fleck and Boden is also an immense asset because it balances a naturalistic tone with spontaneous wit. When Curtis first meets Gerry and buys him a Woodford instead of “the cheap stuff,” you could swear this exchange is already iconic, something you’ve been quoting with your friends for years. Even though Mississippi Grind wears its influences on its sleeves the film is also hiding a few surprising aces underneath them. A shift in conventional archetypes – the old teacher and the young protégé – is subversive and adds depth. But this is not a film of great consequence, and I mean that in the best possible way. There is no great plot to destroy the world, and no great overarching message to consider, just two guys, a road trip, a bag of cash, a lot of casinos, and a lifetime of problems.