Title: Mississippi Grind
Directors: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Robin Weigert
Gambling can be a serious addiction, and as a result it is used as the subject of a number of films. The rush of the bet and the endless cycle of owing money to loan sharks and other creditors is rarely a positive or optimistic situation, but the characters involved are often fascinating people. Mississippi Grind, the new film from Half Nelson directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden centers on two gamblers, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), each with different vices that make them a formidable but risky bet.
Gerry is the conventional gambler, someone who goes to casinos every night and can’t quit even after a big win. He is in debt to everyone in town, and hopeless to stop and get his life back on track, which includes reconnecting with his ex-wife and daughter who he has not seen in a few years. Curtis, on the other hand, is not an expert gambler but instead someone who loves to play the game, declaring that betting $20 on a given outcome means that he is paying $20 to see something entertaining rather to win, which he argues makes him a strong poker player, among other talents.
It’s obvious from the first moment they meet, where Curtis buys Gerry an expensive drink at a poker table just because he likes the look of him, that these two are fated to gamble together. Gerry firmly believes that Curtis is a good luck charm, telling him that whenever he is around, good things happen, and when he is not, everything goes to hell. Thus begins a road trip down to New Orleans from Gerry’s home in Iowa filled with stops at every casino, horse race, and any place they can lose money along the way. Curtis manages to help Gerry come out of his shell and interact with people, something he does not regularly do, while Gerry fuels Curtis’ excitement for the unpredictable.
These two characters are so fantastically dynamic and watchable that it makes the experience of what could have been just another gambling movie wholly enthralling. Reynolds, who does not usually take on truly serious roles, is exceptional as Curtis, free-wheeling in his everyday life while maintaining masterful control of every situation he is in, particularly when he speaks to any female. Mendelsohn, who has been terrific in supporting roles in Animal Kingdom and Starred Up, dons an American accent to play a genuine, broken man whose life is ruled by his addiction. It’s a formidable performance that demonstrates Mendelsohn’s true range. Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton shine in supporting roles as prostitute friends of Curtis’ in St. Louis who have a profound effect on him and on Gerry.
Mississippi Grind travels down a similar road that movies about gambling or addiction of any sort have, but it manages to avoid clichés and use its predictable nature to its advantage. Like Half Nelson before it, Fleck and Boden tackle darkness and inevitability in a setting where others can easily come in and out but the protagonist, or protagonists in this case, is hopelessly trapped in a world of bad decisions. It pays off tremendously in this engaging, funny, heartbreaking, and very strong film.
This Sundance Premieres entry has held several public screenings in Park City thus far, with three more scheduled.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer