MISSISSIPPI GRIND (USA/15A/108mins)
Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck. Starring Ben Mendlesohn, Ryan Reynolds, Yvonne Landry, Anthony Howard, Jayson Warner Smith, James Toback.
THE PLOT: Down amongst the makers and griftrs, Gerry (Mendlesohn) is struggling to keep his head above water on the poker table. The guy is plainly in it for the long game, but he’s paying a price, with at least one failed marriage and a great big hunk of burgeoning debts to prove it. He owes “a lot” to “everyone”.
When the casually brazen and seemingly blessed Curtis (Reynolds) happens into his life, Gerry reckons his four aces may have finally come in. With his good luck charmer putting up the money, and Gerry putting his years of poker grindstone on the line, the two head off on a road trip to bring in the millions. Only, you know, you don’t always get dealt the hand you’d hoped for…
THE VERDICT: Movies about card sharks who just can’t get a proper bite in life are ten-a-penny-ante, but filmmakers are still finding something highly seductive about this life of near-crime. Even really smart filmmakers like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously went down the rabbit hole of everyday drug addiction in 2006’s ‘Half Nelson’ and taking the long ball at glory in the minor-leagues in 2008’s ‘Sugar’.
Here, the filmmaking duo are helped enormously in their task of shining a light into the dark, dank shadows of do-or-die poker by the great Ben Mendlesohn, one of the finest character actors working today. Box-office refugee Reynolds is well-cast too, in a role that would have fitted Ryan Gosling even better if he hadn’t pretty much played this character already in the criminally underrated ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ (2011). As the duo slip from Newman and Redford to Cruise and Hoffman, the drama darkens and deepens.
Casting legendary director James Toback as a legendary player is a nice touch (this is the man who gave us 1974’s ‘The Gambler’, after all), but, ultimately, it makes you realise that Boden and Fleck never quite reach the depths of those 1970s American dramas that they’re apeing here.
RATING: 3/5
Review by Paul Byrne

Mississippi Grind
Review by Paul Byrne
3.0Dark & Deep
  • filmbuff2011

    Mississippi Grind, the fourth film from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson), is an easygoing but character-laden road trip through the gambling world of the Deep South. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is an expert gambler, but he’s down on his luck. Mired in debt, the only thing he seems to be good at is losing money. That’s until he meets younger gambler Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) at a poker game. The two of them hit it off and decide on trying to win together. So, they set off on that time-honoured American tradition of the road trip along the Mississippi River, taking in casinos, gambling joints and card games along the way from St Louis, Missouri to New Orleans, Louisiana. Gerry’s losing streak may or may not improve along the way, but they hope to re-kindle some of that success and the sweet smell of fresh money. During the journey (which is ultimately the destination), both men find that money isn’t everything and what they have lost is far more than just money… Written by Fleck and Boden, Mississippi Grind is a beautifully crafted character piece about two characters who are really lost souls. Gambling is the basic backdrop of the story, but as the story progresses, we find out more about Gerry and Curtis – why they’re alone, why they’re always teetering on the edge of either complete success or utter failure. There’s no middleground for these characters – it’s everything or nothing for these guys. Well-played by the charismatic Reynolds and the consistently brilliant Mendelsohn (described recently by Ryan Gosling as like an ice cream truck – he brings joy to everyone on set), this is a double act that is as much about trust as it is about friendship. These guys may be losers in both gambling and life, but there’s something so innately likeable about them, that you want them to win – and win big. It’s episodic by nature, with Sienna Miller popping in briefly as a former squeeze of Curtis, but all the segments join together to form a warmly satisfying and rewarding whole. You’re not taking a gamble on Mississippi Grind – it’s a clear winner that shows further proof of Fleck’s and Boden’s growing talent. ****

  • searcher2015

    Existential gambling classic American road movie. Heavily atmospheric, strong use of body language makes dialogue almost superfluous. Focus on the duality of good and evil. Gerry is good when he wins but evil when he loses and all like life itself depends on the roll of a dice. Musical score is superb, sets are dark and ugly and convey the feeling of empty lives lived at the basic Maslovian level. We see the dark troubled nature of the struggle of two gamblers trying to achieve the American dream – or is it that they are trying to find meaning where no meaning can exist? There is no satiation for these two lost souls because when they win they vigilantly seek to lose. Perhaps the journey itself is their meaning, their reward. Or maybe it’s just chewing gum. This movie raises intriguing questions but provides few answers. Complex, compelling viewing worthy of a four star rating.

  • emerb

    “Mississippi Grind” is a low key but endearing road movie which was co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck(“Half Nelson” and “Sugar”). It is profoundly simple but also an emotionally rich story of new friends who share a gambling addiction. It stars Ben Mendelsohn as a desperate poker player who embarks on a high-stake gambling trip through the South with smooth gambler (Ryan Reynolds) in tow, both in search of that big win at a poker tournament in New Orleans. The story may not deliver the excitement and action that that some audiences may crave, the pace is slow and the plot is somewhat meandering but I think many will warm to the film’s superb performances and the ever-present themes of friendship, addiction, fate, redemption and acceptance which form a central part of the movie. The “best-buddies road trip” movie isn’t an easy genre to get exactly right, especially if you want to blend comedy with pathos and friendship, but I think this movie manages the balance very nicely and turns out to be an engaging and interesting character study.

    The movie starts in Dubuque, Iowa, in the middle of a card game, where a quiet man named Gerry (Mendelsohn) first meets a handsome gent named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). Curtis swoops in and wins everyone’s affection with his charisma and before long the two men are bonding and gradually unveiling their different histories. Gerry is a divorced real estate agent who lives with his cat and owes money to the friendly neighborhood loan shark (Alfre Woodard), amongst others. As we learn later, Gerry’s addiction has cost him a wife and a daughter. With creditors at his heels, he thinks his new friend will change his fortune and Curtis agrees to stake him on a road trip down the Mississippi toward New Orleans, where they can buy in at a legendary poker game. From then, the film becomes a fairly traditional two-character road trip, with an unplanned detour to Little Rock where Gerry makes an ill-advised attempt to win back his estranged ex-wife (Robin Weigert) and another interlude where Curtis takes the opportunity to reconnect with an old girlfriend (Sienna Miller).The ladies there take an immediate liking to the guys and invite them back to their place, where Gerry reveals an unexpected talent for piano and another shy woman, Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton), forms an emotional connection with Gerry.

    “Mississippi Grind” benefits immensely from its casting. Reynolds is a natural here and uses his personal likeability and charm to great effect. This is one of his richest roles to date and he gives us a career-best performance. I think he has never been better than he is as Curtis -the smart, slick, self-aware pro who steps into an Iowa casino and appears to have it all – women, contacts and money. In time we come to see that his concern for Gerry seems borne out of genuine affection and empathy, he’s made a new friend and wants his new friend to be happy. Yet, despite his social skills and in-control exterior, we sense that Curtis is just as stuck in the world of gambling and chance. Gerry at first seems merely a pathetic, self-destructive liar and loser but gradually he reveals deeper layers of pride, gentleness and fury. While he’s a compulsive gambler, not just with money but with what’s left of his life, and a frequent thief, he’s also a sweetheart, an easily likeable guy and one who says a long goodbye to his cat before leaving. He isn’t afraid to show his emotions and Mendelsohn shows himself, once again, to be a resourceful actor and is entirely credible here. One of the pleasures of the movie is watching him perform in a role where he is both shifty and sincere. The two characters have a superb chemistry and they form a quick and easy friendship. However, reality creeps in when Gerry starts to go off the deep end with Curtis’ cash and Curtis isn’t happy to discover that Gerry’s really doesn’t know when to stop. He was willing to help his new pal try to play his way out of debt but when Gerry overindulges, their dynamic changes. I liked the way the film explores what happens when two people who don’t really know each other become friends, the discoveries they can gradually learn and how parameters of the friendship may need to be renegotiated.

    While the tone of “Mississippi Grind” is relaxed, playful and even humorous, throughout the film there is a subdued air of melancholy and sadness. However I like that this is not over-emphasized and Fleck and Boden are more interested in observing the way the two friends pull together and draw apart, deceiving each other and then reconnecting through mutual affection . The film is set to a soundtrack full of well-chosen flavourful blues and country songs. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh evocatively captures the dingy bars, pool halls, racetracks, seedy hotels and the settings make a perfect backdrop for two guys caught in a loop of hope, elation and then crushing disappointment. Yet it’s Gerry and Curtis’ continually evolving friendship that takes centre stage and this is a film driven far more by characters than by plot. I feel that there is a strong risk that this might mean that it will not get wide acclaim, which is shame. The movie ends on a rather apt open-ended note where it is left to the audience to decide what paths these two men will follow. I think that they have formed a true friendship which will last for many years and I, for one, was not tired of these two buddies at the end of the film.