Mississippi Grind

Movie Information

The Story: Two gamblers team up for a road trip to a big game in New Orleans. The Lowdown: Edging close to greatness, this is a very good — albeit rather sad — character study about friendship, addiction and the hope for redemption — or the next closest thing. The performances of Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds are flawless.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It's Kind of a Funny Story)
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Robin Weigert, Alfre Woodard, Analeigh Tipton
Rated: R

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Mississippi Grind — the latest film from writer-director team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck — is something of a throwback. And a very welcome throwback it is, even if it just misses greatness. This feels like a movie that could have been made in the 1970s (even the credits look it). It has that 1970s road-trip sensibility — something like Robert Altman’s 1974 California Split. (Compare the poster for Mississippi Grind with the DVD case for the Altman movie.) But the tone is more in keeping with the grimness of Karel Reisz’s The Gambler, another 1974 film. In fact, the screenwriter of The Gambler, James Toback, appears in a small role late in Mississippi Grind, making it obvious that the similarities are hardly coincidental. But while this film is savvy as concerns its roots, it’s considerably more than just a nod to an earlier era or a film out of its time.

 

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The film stars Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn (with a perfectly credible American accent), as badly down-on-his-luck compulsive gambler Gerry, and Ryan Reynolds (again proving there’s more to him than is often assumed), as the more level-headed, self-aware gambler-drifter Curtis. In many ways, they resemble the characters played by Mendelsohn and Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). Again, we find the same older-man, younger-man dynamic. While it’s never as obvious here, there’s little doubt that Mendelsohn’s Gerry is attracted to the younger man in an unresolved (and unresolvable) way.

 

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The duo meet across a gambling table with the bright, joking younger man at first making the older one skeptical. Who can blame him? Curtis lights up a room; Gerry darkens one with his worn face and gloomy demeanor. It quickly transpires that Gerry has good reason for his gloom. He’s in debt to loan sharks (including a cast-against-type Alfre Woodard) and completely out of control — panic-stricken at the thought of his situation. He doesn’t know when to quit, whether it’s gambling, drinking or coming up with excuses and notions of his luck turning. But Curtis, he reasons, might be the signal that his luck could indeed be turning, since the younger man’s claim that he always wins (because he doesn’t care) seems to be true. Why not throw in his lot with Curtis? Gerry provides the transportation for the trip to a big poker game in New Orleans — with stops in St. Louis, Memphis and Little Rock — and the two become traveling and gambling companions.

 

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Though there are meaningful encounters along the way, especially with two women in St. Louis, the film is really all about Gerry, Curtis and gambling. The St. Louis scenes are, however, instructive in what they reveal about both men. Curtis immediately settles into his quasi-relationship (or fantasy of one) with Simone (Sienna Miller), while Gerry hesitantly — and chastely — takes up with her friend Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton) and surprisingly reveals his ability not only to play piano, but to play compositions by Erik Satie. There is — or was — more to him than meets the eye. The same may be true of Curtis. But neither they, nor the film, are forthcoming.

 

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The revelations and hints of revelations continue with the journey, which also includes a pathetic trip to visit Gerry’s ex-wife (Robin Weigert) — an event that works on Curtis’ emotions concerning Simone, but turns out not to be for exactly sentimental reasons. It’s all a character study and an essay on atmosphere. It’s a meditation on loss, regret and the vague possibility of redemption and a better tomorrow. It may sound bleak, but it doesn’t play that way. That it never quite becomes a great movie is regrettable — like one of those hands that Gerry should have won — but it gets very near it. Rated R for language.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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10 thoughts on “Mississippi Grind

  1. Me

    I get a California Split vibe just from reading about this movie. I think their film Sugar is one of the best sports movies of the last 20 years.

  2. Edwin Arnaudin

    and surprisingly reveals his ability not only to play piano, but to play compositions by Erik Satie. There is — or was — more to him than meets the eye. The same may be true of Curtis. But neither they, nor the film, are forthcoming.

    This “show, don’t tell” style is a big part of why I think Mississippi Grind is a great film. Boden and Fleck specialize in this lost narrative art and it allows a range of big emotions to flow from the carefully-constructed and acted material. As of now, it’s my #2 film of 2015.

    • Ken Hanke

      It’s probably not that high with me, but I find it interesting that two of the best movies to blow into town this year — this and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet — were both thrown away.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        Likewise. Spivet is #3 or #4 for me, battling with The End of the Tour.

        • Ken Hanke

          Spivet — though I feel a little funny about it because I listed it in a side comment last year — is currently at no. 1 for me.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I’ve been meaning to ask about your current rankings.

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