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.
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.
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.
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.
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.