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Non-Review Review: Mississippi Grind

Mississippi Grind is an intimate and thoughtful character study, featuring two superb central performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds. Written and directed by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Mississippi Grind finds two gamblers winding their way down the eponymous river in the hopes of winning big at a poker game in New Orleans. “Like Huck Finn,” compulsive gambler Gerry insists when the idea first comes to him. It seems an appropriate comparison, given the themes of the film.

Never pushing its meditations on the American Dream too hard, and never labouring its points too heavily, Mississippi Grind achieves an honesty that borders on the profound. More than that, it captures both the romance and the desperation of that one last bet – the inability to settle for “enough” and the insistence that there is always everything to be won, even if it means that everything can be lost.

Meet me in St. Louis...

Meet me in St. Louis…

A chance meeting at a dingy poker game brings Chuck and Gerry together. Gerry is very much a typical gambling addict. He owes money all over town. If he hasn’t borrowed money from people, chances are that he has stolen from them. Though he gets by as a real estate salesman, he is constantly chasing the thrill of the next big pay-off. Convinced that he can dig his way out of any hole, Gerry never knows enough to quit. There is a scent of quiet desperation to Gerry, only enhanced by the audio guide to poker he plays on loop in his car.

Curtis is more dynamic. He is flirty and charming. He is much more romantic than Gerry, but perhaps also more pragmatic. Curtis always has a story to tell, trading trivia with people he encounters on his journey. If Gerry is a gambler, Curtis is a collector. He picks up people like he picks up trivia. Taking an odd shine to poor pathetic Gerry, Curtis finds himself gambling as much on Gerry as Gerry does on anything around them. Though he banters well, Curtis remains inscrutable and mysterious. He seems aware of how things will play out, even as he allows them to.

Keep on grindin'...

Keep on grindin’…

There is a sense that these two are lost souls, even if Gerry wears his damage more openly. “I’m bad with money,” he confesses to a stranger in a rare moment of intimacy and self-awareness. Gerry is a walking disaster, the kind of cautionary tale that Curtis tells all the time about people he knows who may or may not exist. Gerry is eager and hungry, even if he can never allow himself to appreciate the taste of success. It is very much a familiar role in these kinds of films, but Ben Mendelsohn plays it beautifully.

There is a brutal honesty to the performance that is often uncomfortable to watch. Mendelsohn never softens Gerry, never plays for sympathy. Gerry is at once pathetic and magnetic. It is easy to see why Curtis is drawn to Gerry’s vulnerability and his need, even as it becomes more and more likely that this will all end in tears for everybody involved. Mendelsohn has demonstrated a remarkable affinity for these sorts of roles, the losers who flavour their desperation with just the faintest trace of charm.

Bar none.

Bar none.

Curtis is a more enigmatic character. He is charming and outgoing, but no less vulnerable than Gerry. Mississippi Grind never seems to favour one of its protagonists over the other; as much as Gerry seems to be a fundamentally broken individual, it seems like Curtis is simply better at papering over the cracks. Curtis is likable and energetic, but there is also a void at his centre. His interest in Gerry is kept somewhat ambiguous for most of the film, the nature of the relationship seeming mysterious. What Curtis wants from it, and what he gets, suggests a fascinating character.

Ryan Reynolds is skilfully cast in the role of Curtis. Reynolds has an easy charm that lends itself to these sorts of fast-talking huckster roles, but also just the slightest hint of a dark side bubbling away just beneath the surface. It is possible to find Curtis charming and disarming, while still sensing that there is something missing in him. Reynolds plays Curtis very well, suggesting the character through silences and glances as much as through words and smiles. Reynolds and Mendelsohn play off each other well.

Curt is great.

Curt is great.

It helps that they have a great script to work with, from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Too often, stories about gambling addiction can meditate too heavily on the obvious tragedy of the situation – the inevitability of loss, and the inability of the addict to recognise that inevitability. Gambling addiction lends itself to tragedy, but the inescapability of that tragedy tends to hem in the arcs of these sorts of films. Mississippi Grind brutally acknowledges the tragedy and desperation of gambling addiction, but never exclusively.

After all, the addiction has to carry at least some pleasure or relief for the addict. It is possible to focus exclusively on the inevitable tragic loss, but that excludes a significant portion of the experience. Although the addict’s mentality may remain purely hypothetical to most audience members, it is important to tease the highs that these characters must chase. Allowing Gerry to brush against success, or to acknowledge that not every bet is a bust, allows Mississippi Grind a more nuanced and holistic worldview.

A dicey proposition...

A dicey proposition…

Mississippi Grind never glosses over the consequences of Gerry’s addiction, but it also doesn’t overlook the lure of success. The film switches effortlessly between the highs and the lows, capturing at once the epic majesty of watching a ship come in while also allowing the audience to witness the pathetic and desperate failed attempts to steal some dignity from the jaws of defeat. Mississippi Grind feels like a well-rounded and nuanced portrayal of its particular world.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck deserve a great deal of credit for their direction. The world inhabited by Gerry and Curtis feels real rather than stylised; its dive bars feel like they have been lived in, rather than existing as stock Hollywood depictions of shady bars. The film places an emphasise on the quiet desperation bubbling away in the background of these locations rather than more obvious visual indicators of squalor or decay. Mississippi Grind feels gritty, but without ever feeling cartoonish.

The taste of failure...

The taste of failure…

Mississippi Grind is a fantastic piece of work, a triumph for its two stars and its two directors.

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