Movie Review: “Mississippi Grind”

Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton
Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Gambling addiction has been explored to terrific results on film, with two of the finest examples being Robert Altman’s “California Split” and “The Gambler,” both the original film starring James Caan as well as the overlooked Mark Wahlberg-led remake. The tropes of gambling films are well-established, and writing/directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) aren’t afraid to acknowledge those conventions in their newest and deeply human film, “Mississippi Grind.”

At the start of the story, Gerry (Ben Mendlsohn) has already hit rock bottom. The gambling addict has a rightfully bitter ex-wife, a job as a real estate agent that he’s no good at, and he owes money to everybody. His luck quickly changes when he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a younger, more charming and luckier fellow. Curtis is a people person, and he wants to help Gerry out, so the two gamblers decide to team up and go on a road trip through the South, hitting up all the big games and casinos together, with Curtis bankrolling Gerry.

This might be Boden and Fleck’s best collaboration to date. Their script is dense yet loose, hugely influenced by Altman’s approach to “California Split.” In fact, the first half of “Mississippi Grind” almost plays out as an unofficial remake of the 1974 film, sharing more than a few character traits and story beats in common. But what could’ve been a recycled, pale imitation of Altman’s film ends up standing on its own. “Mississippi Grind” features fully realized characters, from the film’s stars to the small supporting roles. We get snippets of other gamblers’ lives, whether at the poker table, or in a friendly and seemingly random exchange with Gerry and Curtis, and these discussions create a lived-in, believable atmosphere – one filled with highs and lows, desperation and joy.

Boden and Fleck’s script follows the “you win some, you lose some” mentality. When Gerry and Curtis win big, it almost always comes at a cost. Sure, they may win a boatload of money every now and then, but that doesn’t fix these broken men. This is a story of unfulfilled characters – people who made mistakes and are trying to start over. Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton play prostitutes, and they, like Gerry and Curtis, have their own dreams. They all want a better life, but is that life even possible?

Boden and Fleck explore these questions and characters to the fullest extent. No stone is left unturned with Gerry and Curtis. It also helps that the directors landed an ideal pairing with Mendlsohn and Reynolds, both of whom are fantastic. They build a believable rapport in no time, and they’re the kind of characters with which you would want to go on a road trip. They also nail the subtleties of Boden and Fleck’s script. At one point, the protagonists draw attention to each other’s “tell,” and it’s impressive how both actors, even in the smallest dramatic moments, play those tells to let the audience in on whether Gerry and Curtis are lying without anyone ever directly commenting on it.

“Mississippi Grind” is a thoughtful, empathetic character study. Boden and Fleck never judge these characters, even when both men make serious mistakes. By the end, you’re still rooting for them, flaws and all, to get their lives together. Whether they actually will is a question that’s raised with a clever “win some, lose some” ending.