Humble Gambling Drama Is A Safe Bet
DIRECTORS: ANNA BODEN, RYAN FLECK/2015
According to an official description of the new drama Mississippi Grind, the film is intended to play as a textured human tale with grit, evoking everyone’s favorite golden era of cinema, the 1970s.
The description is not far off, as the small scale film completely wears its apparent lack of resources as a badge of honor. All lighting appears natural, all locations appear unaltered. Being that Mississippi Grind is the sometimes agonizing tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler (a sad sack Ben Mendelsohn) and his mysterious new confidant (Ryan Reynolds), this overall aesthetic choice isn’t just one of convenience, it’s the right one.
That said, the feel of Mississippi Grind is one less recognizable than the 70’s classics that may spring to mind. Think less Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson than Payday with Rip Torn. It is the complete antithesis of the glossy, escapist Will Smith vehicle Focus, in which smarter, smoother con artists (played by bigger and sexier movie stars) prey upon unwitting wagerers for the viewers’ ultimate amusement.
Mendelsohn is Gerry, a chronic gambler who’s deep in debt, and, we come to find out, in very big trouble. In true Harry Nilsson “Lime in the Coconut” logic, he sees the only way out of his gambling-induced situation to be more gambling.
Mendelsohn, and the directors (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden of Half Nelson fame), embrace his slight frame and hangdog looks – Gerry isn’t just recognizably damaged, he’s pathetic. Through the course of Mississippi Grind, our patience with him and sympathies for him are juggled effectively as his desperate decisions play not only against what’s logically best for him, but also what we’d hope for him.
Early on, Gerry meets Curtis, a free spirited card player with good luck and a winning smile. Curtis is played with effective magnetism by Ryan Reynolds, an actor who’s career, frankly, could use a winning spin. While Reynolds’ talent shines through in his character’s compelling vagabond presence, the odds of such a small picture as this re-igniting him is a Vegas longshot Curtis would avoid.
In any case, it is his presence that is both fundamental and fundamentally confounding about Mississippi Grind. Curtis is “snappy”. And if there’s one thing Gerry isn’t, it’s snappy. The clever things he says and the places he takes Gerry (most of the film is a Midwestern American road trip rife with high highs and lowly lows) could easily be viewed as the the sort of things Gerry would sell himself on.
But Curtis is also “lucky”, perhaps because he claims not to need or care about the money that’s always on the line. He’s tall, attractive, and constantly tells Gerry to improve his posture. We have no trouble believing that he might have a beautiful girl “waiting in every port” (in this case, Yvonne Landry, playing a St. Louis prostitute.)
At other times, Curtis is the worst kind of enabler. (The film’s tagline, “We can’t lose”, is his favorite lie to tell.) Compared to Gerry’s worn out windbreaker, Curtis is well dressed, except that he for some reason keeps his collar turned up. That’s stupid. But in true 1970s film fashion, it’s up to us to either take Curtis at face value, or read more into him.
Mississippi Grind can be said to be the type of film that’s so character driven, the rest of it is stuck in neutral. Yet, it emerges against all odds as a mostly-effective nuanced indie work with theatrical distribution. In this much-touted “age of the blockbuster”, movies like this are supposed to be relegated straight to VOD, much less boasting a large cardboard standee in theater lobbies. And yet, both the film and the standees are in theaters. Although Mississippi Grind isn’t always brilliant, it isn’t always a grind, either. It might even be fundementally dishonest, but with few exceptions (and there are exceptions), it works hard to deal a “real” hand. The film can be both intentionally and unintentionally frustrating, but it’s good to see a 1970s-style gamble such as this one try to beat the odd