Mississippi Grind (2015)
We can’t lose.
Gerry (Australia’s greatest actor, Ben Mendelsohn), a degenerate gambler, meets fellow card shark Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) in a casino and becomes convinced that the younger man is some kind of good luck charm. After a string of ‘good signs’ and a big win at a dog track, the pair decide to team up for a gambling trip down the Mississippi River from their starting point in Iowa to New Orleans, where a poker game with a massive pot awaits. For Gerry, the trip is pressingly urgent; his loan shark Sam (Alfre Woodard) is on his back. Curtis’ motives are less clear. And away we go.
Mississippi Grind comes to us courtesy of filmmaking team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who these days are best known for calling the shots on Captain Marvel (2019), the MCU’s first woman-led superhero flick, and all the attendant furor that it attracted both from chuds who decided that lead actor Brie Larson was some kind of Misandrist Anti-Christ, and their opposite number who decided it was the best thing since Nevermind largely due to the film’s optics — poor Captain Marvel was never allowed to be the pretty decent, rather hamstrung popcorn flick it so clearly is. It did have Mendo as a shape-shifting alien Skrull, and he was the best thing in it. And he’s the best thing here, too*; Mississippi Grind is an ambling, low-key, street-tough but humane film about how losers lose even when they’re winning, a downbeat but upward-looking buddy comedy that draws a lot of energy from the similar fare that populates mot Best Films of the ’70s lists: Midnight Cowboy (actually 1969, but in the same groove), Scarecrow (1973), The Last Detail (1973), and any number of John Cassavetes joints.
The narrative arc is flattened, but endlessly engaging, and the essential drama springs from two loci. One is the simple gambler’s rush of win or lose: whether these guys will make it to their goal or not and that frisson occurs every time there’s a zero-sum scenario presented by the plot: betting on the right dog, winning this hand, getting into that casino, etcetera and so forth. It’s this thrill that the characters are addicted to, and by proxy, so are we. The second one is actually more complicated, and it comes from parsing the growing relationship between the older Gerry, beat down but still rolling the dice, a divorced real estate agent whose life always seems on the precipice of complete collapse, and the younger, more confident Curtis, rootless but unfettered by obligation and debt, with a glib life philosophy (‘Machu Picchu time!’) and a seemingly casual love interest in prostitute Simone (Sienna Miller). We know that Gerry sees Curtis as a kind of talisman, but why is Curtis hanging around Gerry? What’s the payoff? Is there one at all?
So, Mississippi Grind is effectively a relationship drama between two inveterate liars, both of whom deceive each other over and over again over the course of the film, but both of whom also seem to forgive those transgressions in a way that the straight world wouldn’t; after all, deception and grifting are simply part of the atmosphere in the world they inhabit, like nitrogen, and just as undetectable unless you’re suitably equipped. The joy comes in watching Mendo and Rendo (yeah, let’s go with that) bounce off each other, relishing the deft, multilayered dialogue that Boden and Fleck give them, and the deft, multilayered characters that dialogue reveals.
If we must make a call, Mendo’s well ahead on points in the performance department and this kind of hangdog, soulful loser role fits him like a glove, but Rendo is bringing his A-game, and it’s worth remembering that when he’s not being bloody Deadpool or Detective Pikachu, the former Van Wilder actually does a fair whack of indie films to try and stretch himself — The Nines (2007), Adventureland (2009), Buried (2010), The Voices (2014). His turn here isn’t a million miles away from his usual schtick — self-confident charmer #3 — but there’s something in the interplay between the two characters that elevates his performance, giving the character a bit more heft and grit than usual.
Strong performances aside (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert turns up as Gerry’s ex-wife, by the way) Mississippi Grind works because it’s an oddly judgment-free film, never directly condemning either of its lead characters but rather letting them just move about their milieu and trusting us as viewers to draw what conclusions we can about their drives. Filmmakers Fleck and Boden bring an astute eye for detail and local color to the proceedings, and the various hotels, bars, motels, and byways the pair traverse never feel less than authentic, underlining the film’s naturalistic approach to character and plot. It meanders like the river it takes its title from, but that’s kind of the point — these guys are in a hurry to get nowhere, and that is almost certainly exactly where they’re going to wind up. It is a lot of fun to spend some time with them along the way, though.
*Look, he almost always is.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson