Half Nelson introduced Ryan Gosling to a wider audience, but it also established filmmakers Ryan Fleck’s and Anna Boden’s careers too. Since then they’ve worked on baseball drama Sugar and the larger budget movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story. In each film they’ve shown their ability to tell a strong character driven story that resonates with audiences and their experiences.
Their latest collaborative effort Mississippi Grind is an excellent addition to their catalogue of work, and it features strong performances from Ryan Reynolds (The Voices) and Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Slow West). The story follows career gambler Gerry (Mendelsohn), a down on his luck penniless figure, who meets Curtis (Reynolds) at a late night game of cards.
They strike up conversation and a friendship is formed over beers. Mendelsohn conveys the hopelessness of Gerry’s condition with restraint, and his performance is controlled, and often subdued. He stands in contrast to the more extroverted happy go lucky Curtis, who fits into Reynolds extroverted, and charismatic real life persona with ease.
Drinking Buddies, Gambling Pals
There’s a sense that these characters need each other – Curtis is looking for excitement, whilst Gerry is treading water in a depressing real estate job. Neither one has any ties to the town they live in, and both have bad experiences in their respective pasts that they want to forget and leave behind. Gerry decides to head to New Orleans, and hit up every card game on the way. His goal is a mythical poker game with a $25,000 buy in, and Curtis comes along for the ride.
Gerry views Curtis as a sort of lucky talisman and the pair bundle into Gerry’s old beat up car and head out onto the open road. The CD playing in the car is a self help guide to high stakes poker, and everything about Gerry and his life revolves around gambling and taking risks. But Mississippi Grind never overtly considers the gambling, instead it keeps a tight focus on its central characters – it’s an approach that works well.
All great heist/outlaw/buddy cop stories come in pairs, they always have an opposition at the centre of the narrative. There’s Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance, and Thelma and Louise. These characters push each other, they drive their counterparts forwards, although not always with the best motives. But their stories are ones with purpose, and a sense that the characters are moving towards some sort of definitive moment.
Mississippi Grind doesn’t have that tone, instead its pairing is atomised and postmodern, there’s a hopelessness inherent in the tale, and Curtis and Gerry never seem destined to win anything. Fleck’s and Boden’s screenplay laces each scene with a sense of doom, and it’s more reminiscent of the Matt Damon/Edward Norton film Rounders, than a Hollywood success story.
Gerry lives in a grey world, it’s grim, he’s poor, and he rubs shoulders with other working class ‘hustlers.’ His love is the thrill of gambling. Curtis isn’t so different either, and both characters dream of change, and of adventure. For Curtis, a ladies man, his ‘grift’ is his aptitude at chatting up the women that they meet along the way. But Gerry does have some traits that set him apart from Curtis. Gerry owes plenty of people money and there’s desperation to his actions – although there’s the sense that he’s always in this position.
Gambling movies aren’t generally received with critical acclaim. Perhaps because it’s a sport that doesn’t lend itself to filmic depictions, but the people compelled to gamble are endlessly intriguing. That’s what Mississippi Grind does well – it makes you invest heavily in the two men at the centre of its story. These aren’t young, or even particularly aspirational characters, but we all know the feeling of needing a break, some sort of divine intervention, a blind stroke of luck that’ll save us from whatever desperate situation we’re in.
Gerry and Curtis try to change their lives for the better, and however misplaced their efforts are, they’re still admirable. They’re inept gamblers, and most people would define them as wasters, but they still fight and strive for that one moment, that action or event that will define the sum of their lives and experiences. Gerry believes it will happen at a card table, Curtis believes the journey itself is their life changing event.
Heist Genre Conventions
Mississippi Grind plays on heist genre conventions, and its tone, and narrative, bear more than a few similarities to the excellent Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie The Sting. Throughout Mississippi Grind there are plenty of musical choices, old blues songs and folksongs, that add to the sense that this is a timeless story, a tale of two men rolling the dice and taking their chances in the big bad world.
But there’s also a sense of jaded irony, a feeling that the world is simply too big, and too strong for the likes of Gerry and Curtis. And neither man is particularly kind, or honest with the other. Instead they’re people thrust together by fate and loneliness who have each others backs, and who just might finish the tale with more money than they set out with.
And that’s the trick, that’s the best part of the film. It sucks us in and we’re left seeing the world through Gerry’s idealistic eyes. There’s potential for greatness out there, and most of us don’t gamble, or take any sort of chance at achieving it. But Gerry does, and so does Curtis. Without people like that nothing would happen, good or bad. Instead we’d all just drift through life missing defining experience after defining experience in pursuit of safety.
One More Chance
There are moments in Mississippi Grind where everything seems truly hopeless, moments where Gerry’s depressing circumstances are overwhelming, instances where his actions seem idiotic rather than inspired. But he keeps trying, and we’re quickly sucked back into the logic of gambling addiction – just one more shot, one more roll of the die.
Mississippi Grind is a compelling piece of cinema, driven by deft screenwriting, excellent performances, and a strong narrative that guides the story from seedy bar to seedy bar. The film opens with a shot of a rainbow, a promise of better weather, and a sign that a storm has passed. But with Gerry there’s always a new one on the way. We all hope for a victory, but most of us forget that we have to fight for it – not Gerry; he’s out there, his last dime in his hand, looking to win big, or lose everything.
At one point Curtis says: “The journey is the destination.” It’s a fitting adage for a gambler, but it also promises restlessness and rootlessness. For Gerry and Curtis that’s the dream and the intention. Curtis sees hope in the open road; Gerry sees the potential of a hand not yet dealt.