Editor’s Note: Mississippi Grind opened in limited theatrical release September 25, 2015.
Almost a decade ago, Half-Nelson, a provocative, poignant character drama anchored by Ryan Gosling’s Oscar-nominated performance, seemed to herald the arrival of a new, exciting writing and directing team, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Boden and Fleck followed up Half-Nelson with a low-key, incisive character study, Sugar, centered on a Dominican baseball player trying to find his place in the game he loves and the new country he now calls home. Without a movie star or recognizable face in front of the camera, however, Sugar quickly slid out of movie theaters. Their third collaboration, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, was aimed at more mainstream audiences, but also suggested Boden and Fleck had lost or misplaced their distinctive, inimitable voice, and with the loss of their voice, the “vision” that separates indie/arthouse filmmakers from their commercial, mainstream colleagues.
. . .it’s a solid, non-time-wasting indie drama, overflowing with thoughtfully written, subtext-heavy episodes or regret-filled vignettes.
Boden’s and Fleck’s latest effort, Mississippi Grind, isn’t likely to bring them the commercial success they seem to desire, not when one of the co-stars, Ryan Reynolds, questions of talent or charisma aside, can’t open a film (the release of Deadpool next February isn’t likely to change anything), while the other co-star, Ben Mendelsohn, has made a career out of playing irrevocably damaged, flawed, hygiene-challenged men of low character (e.g., Bloodline, Killing Them Softly, Animal Kingdom), but it’s a solid, non-time-wasting indie drama, overflowing with thoughtfully written, subtext-heavy episodes or regret-filled vignettes. Once again, Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a wounded, broken failure, a gambler on a lifelong losing streak stuck in the figurative and possibly literal middle of nowhere: Dubuque, Iowa (a.k.a. the hyperbole-free “Masterpiece on the Mississippi”). He’s lost his wife and daughter to gambling, owes money to everyone in town, including a maternal moneylender Sam (Alfre Woodard). He sells houses for what passes for a living.
All that, of course, is just background. Minutes into Mississippi Grind’s running time, Gerry stumbles into a local, low-rent casino to once again try his unlucky hand at a low-stakes poker match. Before he can settle in, he locks eyes with a stranger, Curtis (Reynolds), a smooth, fast-talking drifter and possible serial prevaricator (a “meet-cute” by another description). Almost immediately, they bro-bond over their love of gambling, alcohol, and seedy bars. Curtis, however, doesn’t so much bet on individual games of chance as he does on people. He finds and cultivates poker players, staking them a couple grand to start a run at the poker tables, and then rides them until they win or lose. For Gerry, Curtis is something out of a dream. He can’t believe his (good) luck, superstitiously seeing Curtis as a talisman promising a positive change in his fortunes, personally and professionally.
Boden and Fleck take a non-judgmental, accepting approach toward their co-protagonists, embracing, even celebrating their risk-taking ethos.
In large part a road movie, with all of the loose meandering that the road movie sub-genre implies, Mississippi Grind eventually leaves Dubuque behind, taking Gerry and Curtis first to St. Louis, a riverboat casino where Gerry hopes to expand their stake, and Curtis’ on-again, off-again girlfriend, Simone (Sienna Miller), a riverboat casino hostess and occasional working girl, and Simone’s fellow hostess, best friend, and semi-obligatory romantic interest for Gerry, Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton). They then depart for an unexpected stop in Little Rock, Arkansas where Gerry hopes to make amends with his ex-wife, Dorothy (Robin Weigert), and eventually New Orleans, where a big-money, off-the-books poker game with a $25K buy-in awaits Gerry and Curtis, assuming they can make it that far with their burgeoning bromance and stake relatively intact. Boden and Fleck interweave Gerry’s and Curtis’s urgency-free road trip with non-scenic montages and regional blues music (the latter more welcome than the former).
Boden and Fleck take a non-judgmental, accepting approach toward their co-protagonists, embracing, even celebrating their risk-taking ethos. They linger on the fringes of social realism, using grubby, real-world locations, and actors, with the exception of Reynolds, who look like ordinary people, not movie stars, yet they also push Mississippi Grind toward fantasy and wish-fulfillment. By their nature, gamblers tend to be superstitious, looking for signs and portents for their next bet in casual, everyday events, like a man wearing eyeglasses leaving a bathroom, sealing their decision to remain at a racetrack, or Gerry’s surface-level obsession with The Wizard of Oz, from the rainbow that opens the film, to his ex-wife’s name, and on and on. The repeated references certainly aren’t subtle, but they’re also not fatal to a film where the individual parts, individual scenes and vignettes far outweigh the sum of those parts.
Mississippi Grind is a thoughtfully written road movie whose individual parts unfortunately outweigh the sum of those parts.