James Clay // Film Critic
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is an atypical film about the life of a gambler. Riddled with self-loathing and addiction, these sad sacks have a disease. To them it’s not about the free-wheeling glamour of night-life in a casino, it’s about being maestros in the art of losing. Filmmaking partners Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are fascinated by what compels a gambler to rinse and repeat the same mistakes time and time again. Their work together is no stranger to touching on some dark yet honest territory; namely, in HALF NELSON and IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY— it’s an adequate representation of a life that is made for the big-screen, frankly because there is no way a real person is coming away with a boat full of money.
Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a down-on-his-luck real estate broker who is in debt to some people who will “break-a yo’ face” in a small Iowa town; he’s easy to find and needs to get the heck out of dodge. By happenstance he meets the loosey-goosey Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) at a local poker game. Gerry believes Curtis to be his good luck charm at the end of his rainbow and they set out to New Orleans to enter into a high-stakes poker game.
Boden and Fleck’s writing sensibilities take this conventional gambling story and completely disregard the destination, because as Curtis says in the film, “the destination is the journey.” It’s the characters that matter as the duo are steeped into dog tracks, seedy casinos and dingy pools halls. Reynolds is giving his best work in years (if you don’t count the dark comedy from Sundance 2014 THE VOICES). He gives Curtis the mystery and bravado a character like this demands, but with a neediness and vulnerability that a film of this caliber deserves.
And of course there is the esteemed character actor Mendelsohn who has done very well since making the trek over from Australia, appearing in such film as THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and Netflix’s original television show BLOODLINE. He commits to Gerry’s lack of hygiene, or fashion, and his slack jawed manner of speaking. Mendelsohn captures the devastating nature of how far gambling addicts will go to feed their insatiable appetite for losing. It’s almost as if Gerry wants to see snake eyes with each and every roll of the dice. Hell, even after a big win he can’t enjoy his surf n’ turf victory dinner and opts for the cheeseburger instead.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is a cut above every recent gambling film. It’s sad when a film like last year’s version of THE GAMBLER is so bad it impedes on a film of this quality. But, with the performances and the nuanced touch of writing-directing team Boden and Fleck the understated approach succeeds.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND is available in select theaters and on VOD today.