Published on November 12th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
The makers of Sugar bring us Mississippi Grind, a story about a free spirit and a loser, another entry into the genre of gambling movies.
The genre of gambling movies is well-worn territory, from classic films like The Hustler or The Sting, to Hollywood fodder like 21 or Rounders. My favourite gambling film is easily P.T. Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight, where Phillip Baker Hall plays an aging mysterious badass who shows John C. Reilly the ropes, until the tragedy of the life becomes too great a reality to ignore. The point though, is that we’ve seen every cliché there is to see in this realm. Is it possible to bring anything new to this gritty genre?
Mississippi Grind tells the story of Gerry and Curtis, two ramblin’ gamblin’ men who have an instant connection. Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) comes to the table with the spirit of success, primarily because he doesn’t care about winning or losing. He mostly enjoys the game and the people. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a down-on-his-luck loser that can’t catch a break, owes enough money to get him hurt, and is estranged from his wife and daughter. Gerry latches onto Curtis as a good luck charm, and the two men start a road trip towards a big money game in New Orleans, trying to win the buy in on their way.
If anyone could bring something interesting to the gambling movie, it’s directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who all but reinvented the sports movie with Sugar, about a baseball player from the Dominican who is drafted into the US minor leagues. In that film, they subvert genre trappings left and right, while telling a story that is less about baseball than it is about the American Dream.
Mississippi Grind shows us that luck and superstition are two sides of a flipping coin, a couple arguing on the casino floor. When they’re getting along, firing in unison, it’s a beautiful sight to behold and the winnings pour in. But when they turn on each other, it’s a horrible trainwreck, leaving gamblers to sweat in desperation as they circle the drain. Gerry and Curtis find luck with the idea of rainbows, but once they see that imagery everywhere and find that it’s open to interpretation, superstition takes over and it becomes easy to make stupid decisions. Exploring this dynamic is one of the central ideas of Mississippi Grind, and one of the things the movie does best.
Curtis and Gerry are easy friends and the chemistry is there between Reynolds and Mendelsohn, who is always amazing in these greasy roles (as most recently seen in Netflix’s Bloodline and Killing Them Softly). You care about these characters, the free spirit and the loser. However, while it’s easy to see what Gerry sees in his good luck charm Curtis, it’s hard to see what Curtis sees in Gerry, a dead weight loser who starts to bring them down. Is it just because Curtis is a really nice guy? A sucker for hard luck cases? I wasn’t clear on this at all.
My other problem with this duo is no one’s fault but my own — I just don’t buy Ryan Reynolds in anything (well, unless he’s playing a smug leading man in a romantic comedy). Even in good movies like this or Buried, I can always see that troublesome hint of smugness behind his eyes or flickering in his grin. It makes me feel like I’m watching Ryan Reynolds playing a character, as opposed to watching that character. Again, this is more something I bring with me, not Reynolds. But I wonder what the movie would have been like with a really good character actor playing off Mendelsohn?
The movie also ambles around a bit, perhaps feeling a little slow at times. That said, it’s full of interesting scenes and great character moments, so what it lacks in thrust it makes up for in nuances. In the same way Sugar captured the dust in the dugout, Mississippi Grind portrays the feel of a life lived in dive bars and poker rooms, some classy and some so roughneck you might get stabbed for your winnings when you step outside. The night is alive in this world, neon bar lights are the guiding stars, and when daylight does break through the blinds, it brings the harsh realities of life with it.
I don’t think Fleck and Boden have re-imagined the genre as they did with Sugar, but Mississippi Grind is indeed worthy of your time, and of being inducted into the gambling movie canon. Strangely, the most unique thing it has to offer is characters living sad lives in the margins, yet leaning on positive messages about living their lives to the fullest and never being afraid to break the bank going for that winner takes it all moment.