MISSISSIPPI GRIND movie review
by Eric Johnson
Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds give stellar performances as gamblers on a road trip down the Mississippi.
Some guys just can’t stop. It’s in their DNA. Faced with even less-than-mediocre prospects against the option to stand pat in a good spot, the gamble gets the best of them. It’s the action that separates them from the squares and in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s MISSISSIPPI GRIND, it’s what separates Ben Mendelsohn from a stable life. Ultimately, it’s this pitch-perfect performance by Mendelsohn as a middle-aged degenerate that separates and elevates the film, allowing it to become a vital entry into the canon of gambling-centric films.
We meet Mendelsohn’s Gerry, fittingly, in a casino, having bought into a low-stakes poker tournament, where the usual grinder mumbling is interrupted by a new tablemate, a quick-talking, top-shelf drinking guy named Curtis, played charismatically by Ryan Reynolds. Curtis is everything Gerry isn’t – young, good-looking, confident – the natural born winner, and Gerry is drawn to him, perhaps projecting a younger, alternate-universe version of himself. Cut to hours later and we see the contrast, as Reynolds, a quick exit from the tournament notwithstanding, is trending positive, while Mendelsohn can’t help but fixate on his tough-beat bustout, despite cashing deep. Mendelsohn here and throughout perfectly nails the nature of poker players, and gamblers in general, for the vast majority of whom there will never be a success big enough, for whom second place is the first loser, as they’re left to spin a tale of woe of how close they came.
Gerry is always on the come, be it poker, sports betting, the dogs or the ponies – it’s his defining trait and it’s to Mendelsohn’s immense credit as an actor that he takes sad-sack Gerry and infuses him with such a charismatic desperation that we further pot-commit ourselves into his belief that the elusive big score is just on the horizon. We need him to make good and get there, just this once.
Gerry and Curtis team up, with plans to drive from Iowa down the Mississippi, hitting up the casinos, riverboats and cash games along the way, the destination a high-stakes cash game in New Orleans. For Gerry, it’s a chance to make good on some bad decisions he’s leaving behind. For Curtis, well, we’re not quite sure. He’s an out-of-towner and his motive for staking Gerry as they travel south is murky.
The film finds its best footing in this stretch, as Gerry and Curtis work the games, build a bankroll and we learn more about their respective histories. The filmmakers are careful to take their time – this is indeed a film about grinders – and never romanticize the lifestyle. Instead, we confront the lives of men on the road, constantly hustling, always moving on, an impermanence that mirrors the river they follow. We see the loneliness, the longing and the paths less traveled. Nuanced and anchored by deft touches in the details and a strong supporting turns by Sienna Miller and especially Robin Weigert, our feel for these men and the lives they’ve touched, and sometimes broken, only serves to invest us further in their quest.
Through it all Mendelsohn’s Gerry is our hope, our heart and our soul, mankind’s best and worst natures bundled in one, always battling for control of what comes out of his pocket and his mouth. It’s as accurate and riveting a portrayal of the misguided dreams and stark realities of a gambling lifestyle as you will find. By the time they hit New Orleans you desperately hope that Gerry can indeed fade the river.
Reviewed at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.