Today: May 28, 2024

Mississippi Grind

Gambling and addiction, it’s a tale as old as time and one that cinema has always been a ready bed companion. Mississippi Grind doesn’t try and tell you anything new about the highs and lows of betting big and losing eveything but it does so with a sense of Americana, a slice of blue collar existence and the very harrowing reality that even when you’re down, some people just don’t know when to quit.

Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a bonafide gambler, he’s up to his eyeballs in debt, sleepwalking through life until you suspect he takes one risk too many. And then he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) a live in the moment kind of guy, he’s not so much about the money, for him, the journey is the destination. So, having met over a poker game, the pair realise they might just be good luck charms for each other. Setting off on a road trip along the Mississippi they find every card game and casino going to try and win big. But with Gerry’s addiction growing increasingly out of control Curtis begins to wonder if the hand they’ve been dealt isn’t as lucky as he first thought.

Mississippi Grind’s biggest forte is the two central characters. Gerry is a hunched-over disaster just waiting for everything to fall apart. He keeps a cigar box full of treasured possessions that he refers to as his emergency fund, things that have value in a pawn shop paling into insignificance to what they mean to Gerry. Curtis meanwhile is footloose and fancy free, or at least he is on the surface.

For much of the film you wonder if one or both of these characters are playing the other. If there is in fact a long game at work as the two size each other up, get under each other’s skins only to reveal an ace up the sleeve. And it is to writer, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s credit that you’re unlikely to ever be able to second guess, well, anything that the pair are really up to.

Instead you’re asked to sit back and watch as these two very real, very honest, very broken people try to navigate the world they’ve chosen to occupy. But more than anything it’s fascinating to witness them ebb and flow on their respective outlooks on life.

Ryan Reynolds is always a watchable screen presence, his cocksure swagger and billion dollar smile assuring you that Curtis is a good guy. But towards the third act you begin to see glimmers of something in Reynolds that he’s previously never shown, a depth and detail to a character that hints he could be more than Ryan Reynolds and in fact a bona fide acting talent. Meanwhile Mendelsohn is utterly captivating to watch. Somehow managing to channel Dustin Hoffman levels of pathos, Gary Oldman levels of living on the edge and John Hurt levels of hangdog delivery it is hypnotic to take this journey with him.
A grimy and visceral ode to the seduction of gambling Mississippi Grind plays its cards close to its chest and ends up winning big on character and emotion.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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Writer-director duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, best known for their first feature length collaboration Half Nelson (2006) – the Ryan Gosling-starring heavyweight addiction picture centred on an inner city junior high school teacher struggling with drug abuse and the connection and responsibility he feels toward his students – have strayed a little off piste with their subsequent outings. Yet they’ve found a golden egg in this year’s Mississippi Grind, a tale of two hapless tricksters who find each other late one night in a casino and broker a kinship that leads them on one last journey down America’s great river (doh). It’s grin-inducing, palpable fun – but not without its worthwhile moralistic commentary.

The writing is smooth and persuasive, with quick wit and sparkling charm that make you pine for the mid-western route. It’s the gristly cinematography and boot-stomping soundtrack however, that truly take you there. You smell each bar and taste each bourbon afresh. There’s an irrepressible authenticity you can’t ignore, which temporarily dispels the road-trippin’-by-numbers narrative from ruining your fun – you know, the one where characters eject themselves from their lives momentarily to quench their addiction, only to realise that what they had back yonder was truly worthwhile. A lived-in energy persuades us to float alongside our two anti-heroes care-free, happy with their company if nothing else.

Ben Mendelsohn continues on his untouchable ascent towards best supporting actor in the industry. He delivers one his most complete performances since Animal Kingdom (2010) as the lovable yet pitiful rogue Gerry. He never fails to impress, bringing an effortless authenticity and empathy to his roles. Considering the range within his performance, it’d be a true shock for him not to receive an Oscar nomination come February.

However, Mendelsohn’s quality should not be praised alone. His counterpart, the ever-comely Ryan Reynolds – having recently impressed with smaller, unique projects such as Buried (2010), The Captive (2014) and The Voices (2014) – continues to intrigue with his indie turns. He brings a calm, soothing assuredness as aloof Curtis, the necessary counterbalance to scatty, unpredictable Gerry. Sienna Miller also makes her mark, despite slim screen time – maintaining the second-wave momentum of her career started by noteworthy roles in Foxcatcher (2014) and American Sniper (2014).

A true American road movie, filled with Springsteen-ramblin’ spirit, welcome perspectives on gambling culture and tummy-warming buddy-comedy gold. While it has a lot to say about its subject matter, it’s more the way in which it says it – not heavy-handedly or too hard on the nose – that appeals. It also surprises with its unexpected narrative twists and refreshing character arcs, choosing not to condescend its audience or let the narrative be held ransom by it.

A taught and refreshing State-side indie flick, unafraid to embrace what it is, but more importantly be good at it.

 

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