This short exchange between two strangers, who meet at a poker game and bond over a couple of tumblers of Woodford bourbon, is our introduction to Mississippi Grind‘s main characters Gerry and Curtis, two very different men consumed by a habit that has alienated them both from normal life and those who love them. Ben Mendelsohn’s droopy eyed Gerry with weathered complexion, the weight of the world on his shoulders is in direct contrast with Ryan Reynold’s Curtis, a seemingly carefree and charismatic youngster with fresh good looks.
Gerry has been estranged from his wife and daughter as a result of his addiction and is heavily in debt, although he does hold down a job as an estate agent. When he’s not gambling or sleep walking his way through the working day he sits in his car listening to an audio tape which coaches him on how to be a better gambler. The jocular Curtis gives little away about his own story; he likes a flutter or two but seems to be a happy-go-lucky type and after a few nights spent together drinking and gambling, Curtis vanishes as mystically as he had appeared. Then, out of the blue Curtis resurfaces and Gerry, believing this reunion to be a lucky omen refers to Curtis as a “big handsome leprechaun” and convinces him to accompany him on a road trip taking them south along the Mississippi towards a high stakes poker game in New Orleans. Along the way they stop off at various casinos and race tracks and these scenes are a heady blend of comedy, misguided hope and paranoia. En route to New Orleans, Gerry drops in on his ex-wife (Robin Weigert) with disastrous and depressing consequences and Curtis hooks up with his sometime girlfriend, a sexy and convincing red-headed Sienna Miller.
For the most part Mississippi Grind flows well but it begins to meander by the third act as we are presented with an excess of possible endings and unnecessary twists. However, as they say, the journey is more important than the destination. Aside from this minor flaw, Mississippi Grind is a beautifully made un-showy piece of cinema brought to us by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the writer/director duo behind 2006’s similarly low-key indie character study Half Nelson.
Like their previous work, this film is all about the tone and the ambiance. The sombre cinematography by Andrij Parekh transports us into an almost bygone era of smoky bourbon imbued poker rooms and dingy bars. Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds are dynamite together; if it’s appropriate to describe their low-key sharply detailed performances in such explosive terms! However, it’s the consistently superb Mendelsohn(at last a main part for him in an American film) that really shines, his performance exuding a physicality that draws out pity and disgust in equal measure.
Mississippi Grind is alternately melancholic and humourous in a way that’s reminiscent of another great road movie Sideways, Alexander Payne’s bittersweet tale of “bromance” between a similar pair of chalk and cheese buddies. The influence of Altman’s California Split and 1974’s The Gambler is undeniable but nevertheless, Mississippi Grind has certainly earned a place for itself among or even above these classics with its unique angle on gambling addiction and male friendship. Although what resonates most about the film is its slow burning characterisation, there is plenty of energetic witty dialogue and moments of tense excitement particularly when the two protagonists let loose on the roulette table.