Mississippi Grind (2015) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Robin Weigert
Small role: Alfre Woodard, James Toback
Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenplay: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Review published September 14, 2015

Mississippi Grind is a drama about gamblers who hook up for a road trip, traveling from Iowa, down the Mississippi River way, to Louisiana.  Ben Mendelsohn (Slow West, Black Sea) plays Gerry, who has been down on his luck for so long, he's too far in the hole to even see the daylight for the path to get out anymore.  He's lost his wife, his child, his house, eventually his job, and it's getting to the point where there's really nothing left to lose, except perhaps his life, if he can't pay back all of the money he owes everyone to feed his addiction.  He's been avidly listening to audiotapes to help him read other players to get a leg up in poker matches, but can't seem to stop himself from broadcasting that he's a loser. Things take a turn of a sort when a fast-talking drifter named Curtis (Reynolds, Self/less) enters one of his games, and the two find a way to become fast friends, with Gerry hoping that some of Curtis's confidence and luck will continue to rub off on him as they decide to travel together to New Orleans to make a major play in a high-stakes poker tournament.

Written and directed by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), Mississippi Grind explores the self-destructive nature of gambling addiction, allowing us to observe, first-hand, the sense of pathetic and weak character traits of the addict as they think just one lucky roll or hot hand will be what's needed to get their old lives back, when all the while it was that very thought that got them there in the first place.  But it isn't just in gambling where these sad-sacks are unlucky; they're also unlucky in love, especially in how they are willing to also gamble their relationships in the elusive pursuit of the potentially big payday.  Both men are prone to lying to everyone around them, but it gets especially sad when you come to the conclusion that, to continue their gambling addiction, they also are perpetually lying to themselves to the point where they have no other identity except as gamblers.

The life of the gambler has been the subject of films many times before, including The Gambler, not only 2015's remake, but its original version from the 1970s by James Toback, who gets an homage-inspired cameo in Mississippi Grind as Tony Roundtree.  This one's not going to go down as the best movie about gambling addiction, especially as its disingenuous climax seems to lose a good deal of the power of the themes it had been building up to all along.  In a sense, Boden and Fleck were on a hot streak, then decide to gamble a good portion of their momentum, trading out the somewhat realistic take for big moments that eventually make you question just what the movie's really trying to say about these characters.  If we're not really supposed to find them pathetic, or if we're not supposed to find them likeable, then what are we supposed to feel?  Are we supposed to root for them to keep going until they win, or asre we supposed to root for them to finally come to grips with their lives and put down the cards and dice and go back to being decent humans again?  You can't have it both ways; sometimes a story is like gambling -- it's best to quite while you're ahead.

But most audiences will like Mississippi Grind for its acute characterizations and strong performances, even if the storytelling elements ring less than true.  Mendelsohn proves once again why he is the actor's actor, in yet another self-destructive loser role that he pretty much does better than just about anyone working today in films.  Reynolds is nice as the charismatic member of the duo, in a role originally intended for Jake Gyllenhaal, never playing for big, emotional moments, but does show he has good dramatic chops that aren't often explored in his movies that utilize his smart-ass tendencies.  The two register a good deal of bromantic chemistry that makes them a pleasure to see interact with one another, never for obvious laughs at how different they really are, despite common interests.  The smaller roles are mostly women, and they aren't fleshed out enough to give the fine actresses much to work with, but I will say that Robin Weigert (Pawn Sacrifice), who plays Gerry's long-suffering ex-wife Dorothy, still manages to impress during one of the film's most emotional exchanges.

With a nice soundtrack of old rhythm and blues from Memphis and other topical locations along the way, as well as good and refreshingly non-flashy cinematography that captures the exciting and dangerous gambling havens quite well, Mississippi Grind is a bells and whistles kind of a drama, capturing both the electric allure and the somber loneliness of the life of the drifting gambler, who seems to gamble with his own life on many occasions just traversing in between potential big scores.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo