2015, R, 108 mins.
2015, R, 108 mins.
Ryan Reynolds as Curtis / Ben Mendelsohn as Gerry / Sienna Miller as Simone / Analeigh Tipton as Vanessa / Alfre Woodard as Bookmaker / Robin Weigert as Dorothy / Stephanie Honoré as Denise / Lauren Gros as Alice
Written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is a new film that happens to have the aura of an old film, which is its chief asset.
On a cursory
level, the film is about gambling, but on a whole other more fascinating
undercurrent it’s a thoughtful and contemplative exploration of the
worst aspects of human behavior. It’s
ultra slow burn approach to portraying the emotional implosion of a
desperate man that simply can’t help himself is ultimately depressing
and extremely difficult to sit through, but part of the inherent greatness
of MISSISSIPPI GRIND is how it’s a simply constructed film that’s
simply told well, and one that feels like the type of low key and deeply
introspective character dramas that permeated the cinematic landscape of
is yet another dramatic triumph for writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan
Fleck, whom previously helmed two films that I thought were the best of their respective years in 2006’s HALF
NELSON and 2008’s SUGAR.
Those two films were both stirringly rendered character dramas that
grabbed a hold of me on the level of how they cheerfully threw out the
genre conventions playbook. Boden
and Fleck have a sort of rebellious glee in subverting audience
expectations for their material: HALF NELSON had the veneer of a
dime-a-dozen high school melodrama and SUGAR set itself up as a
rag-to-riches underdog sports film. Yet,
the sublimely refreshing exploratory nature of both of these films made
them stand out apart from the genre pack.
The directing tandem liberates their films from narrative predictability
to the point where they become something wholeheartedly novel.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND works in much of the same manner; it’s a film
that captures the lives of its characters with a fly-on-the-wall veracity,
which allows for the story to develop an uncommon observational depth.
The film is about
a loser. Pure and simple.
However, it never asks us to like this man, nor feel outright pity
for him. Gerry (the
criminally underrated Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn) is a man whose life
has been ravaged by gambling. He’s
lost his wife, child, and overall livelihood.
The divorced man lives a sad life of isolation; when he’s not at
home tending to his cat he’s either at local bars drinking too much or
is blowing what little money he has on playing cards or betting at the
race tracks. He does maintain
a day job as a lowly and uninspired real estate agent, but it’s
impossible to see how any soul would ever considering buying a home from
this sad sack. Gerry looks
positively disinterested in selling houses.
It’s a quick and easy manner to secure money to facilitate his
addiction, but things have clearly gone south for him when his loan shark
(a surprisingly cast Alfrie Woodard) begins to hint a potentially violent
means to get her money back.
Of course, like
any obsessive gambler, Gerry thinks that all he needs is a few good scores
to get back on top. During one fateful night he meets Curtis (a never been better
Ryan Reynolds), a younger gambler that he develops a friendship
with while playing poker together. The
more time they spend with one another – engaging in low end casinos in
search of small scores – the more they begin to realize their shared
passion for betting on just about anything.
When Gerry feels that his friendship with Curtis has peaked he asks
him for a favour: He wants him to stake him a few thousand dollars and to
join him on a gambling trek down to Mississippi, hoping to reclaim his
lost mojo as a major player, not to mention to make some much needed cash
to pay back his debts. Curtis
agrees, and the two begin their southern odyssey together, stopping along
the way to deal with personal business when the opportunity presents
itself. Unfortunately, their
relationship hits major snags when it becomes very clear to Curtis that
Gerry is an intrinsically untrustworthy man that just may not stop –
ever – from doing anything to gamble his petty life away.
ultimately becomes a deeply disturbing portrait of self-destruction.
On one level, it never sensationalizes or glamorizes gambling as an
exhilarating pursuit that will eventually lead to an obligatory “big
game” at the film’s conclusion where the protagonists come out on top. Even when the film teases at some level of financial success
for Gerry and Curtis, there always remains a dark underbelly of
foreshadowing doom for them. Gerry
is not a morally reprehensible man, per se, as much as he is a pathetic
one that has no understanding of his own limits.
Gambling, in many ways, is a drug that fuels his daily desires to
win, and when bad luck and misfortune rears their ugly heads he nevertheless
marches on, completely oblivious to the type of psychological damage
he’s doing to himself. The
more we bare witness to this man’s inability to curtail his urges the
more chilling the film becomes.
As they have
demonstrated with their past films, Boden and Fleck once again play
into our expectations of the material on MISSISSIPPI GRIND.
In a wonderful bit of bait and switch, their overall handling of
Curtis acts as a wonderful foil to Gerry.
Usually in films like this it’s the older and world-wearier
mentor that serves as a stern voice of reason for the younger protégée,
but here Curtis – even though he too is a gambling degenerate –
understands the importance of knowing when…to quit…something that’s
altogether foreign to Gerry. Curtis
also seems to present an image of himself that’s relatively genuine
despite some impure motives, whereas Gerry will lie and cheat his way to
money out of pure self-loathing desperation.
Lesser films would have the young hotshot be developed as a sinister
figure with a lecherous gameplan for the downtrodden and emotionally beaten
down Gerry, but MISSISSIPPI GRIND displays great foresight in showing
Curtis as a man that seems to genuinely care about his older partner’s
well being. There exists
hidden layers of depths to both men that many other dramas frankly
wouldn’t have time – nor the inclination – to explore.
Boden and Fleck
craft a multitude of masterfully rendered character scenes that only
typify the tragedy that is Gerry’s life.
One encounter in particular is almost painful to view, during which
time Gerry makes a pit stop to reunite with his ex-wife (Robin Weigert)
that begins with relative peace and calm, but then escalates to a dreadful
crescendo where he commits a heinous action that underscores what a sick
and damaged man he has become. The
only light at the end of the proverbial tunnel exists for Curtis, as
he’s shown pining throughout the film for some semblance of a normal
domestic life away from gambling and the lifestyle.
All of this is greatly assisted by the film’s delightfully
uncharacteristic casting calls. Reynolds has made a career of playing cocky heroes in
comedies and action films, but he’s at a career best here playing a role
with a subtlety and tact that I’ve not witnessed from him before. Mendelsohn owns this film though, especially for the way he
so thoroughly inhabits is roles with such an economy. He perhaps doesn’t get the reward recognition that he
rightfully deserves, mostly for how internalized his performances are: he
rarely engages in camera mugging hysterics to sell scenes.
He’s so nuanced that his work tends to fly in under the radar,
which is, ironically enough, what makes him such a dynamic on-screen
talent to watch.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is not a flashy film that draws attention to itself, which is largely why I became so enamored with it. Boden and Fleck capture the nuances of their wayward characters and their respective journeys with a unique viewfinder that’s simply not abundant in many American dramas these days. Their films have a lived-in texture and credibility that draw and invite us in, despite the more ominous tones of despair they take latter on. Even when it appears that Gerry has achieved a major victory near the end of MISSISSIPPI GRIND, Boden and Fleck tap us on the shoulders and remind us that this man is perhaps beyond any semblance of redemption. Like HALF NELSON and SUGAR before it, MISSISSIPPI GRIND dares to go well beyond stale and overused genre troupes and, as a result, becomes a drama that keeps viewers off balance and guessing as to its narrative trajectory. The film is also not afraid to relay a sad truth that, sometimes, no hope is in sight for the most beleaguered of souls.