A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2015



2015, R, 108 mins.


Ryan Reynolds as Curtis  /  Ben Mendelsohn as Gerry  /  Sienna Miller as Simone  /  Analeigh Tipton as Vanessa  /  Alfre Woodard as Bookmaker  /  Robin Weigert as Dorothy  /  Stephanie Honoré as Denise  /  Lauren Gros as Alice

Written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

MISSISSIPPI GRIND is a new film that happens to have the aura of an old film, which is its chief asset.  

On a cursory level, the film is about gambling, but on a whole other more fascinating undercurrent it’s a thoughtful and contemplative exploration of the worst aspects of human behavior.  It’s ultra slow burn approach to portraying the emotional implosion of a desperate man that simply can’t help himself is ultimately depressing and extremely difficult to sit through, but part of the inherent greatness of MISSISSIPPI GRIND is how it’s a simply constructed film that’s simply told well, and one that feels like the type of low key and deeply introspective character dramas that permeated the cinematic landscape of the 1970’s.  

MISSISSIPPI GRIND is yet another dramatic triumph for writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whom previously helmed two films that I thought were the best of their respective years in 2006’s HALF NELSON and 2008’s SUGAR.  Those two films were both stirringly rendered character dramas that grabbed a hold of me on the level of how they cheerfully threw out the genre conventions playbook.  Boden and Fleck have a sort of rebellious glee in subverting audience expectations for their material: HALF NELSON had the veneer of a dime-a-dozen high school melodrama and SUGAR set itself up as a rag-to-riches underdog sports film.  Yet, the sublimely refreshing exploratory nature of both of these films made them stand out apart from the genre pack.  The directing tandem liberates their films from narrative predictability to the point where they become something wholeheartedly novel.  MISSISSIPPI GRIND works in much of the same manner; it’s a film that captures the lives of its characters with a fly-on-the-wall veracity, which allows for the story to develop an uncommon observational depth. 



The film is about a loser.  Pure and simple.  However, it never asks us to like this man, nor feel outright pity for him.  Gerry (the criminally underrated Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn) is a man whose life has been ravaged by gambling.  He’s lost his wife, child, and overall livelihood.  The divorced man lives a sad life of isolation; when he’s not at home tending to his cat he’s either at local bars drinking too much or is blowing what little money he has on playing cards or betting at the race tracks.  He does maintain a day job as a lowly and uninspired real estate agent, but it’s impossible to see how any soul would ever considering buying a home from this sad sack.  Gerry looks positively disinterested in selling houses.  It’s a quick and easy manner to secure money to facilitate his addiction, but things have clearly gone south for him when his loan shark (a surprisingly cast Alfrie Woodard) begins to hint a potentially violent means to get her money back. 

Of course, like any obsessive gambler, Gerry thinks that all he needs is a few good scores to get back on top.  During one fateful night he meets Curtis (a never been better Ryan Reynolds), a younger gambler that he develops a friendship with while playing poker together.  The more time they spend with one another – engaging in low end casinos in search of small scores – the more they begin to realize their shared passion for betting on just about anything.  When Gerry feels that his friendship with Curtis has peaked he asks him for a favour: He wants him to stake him a few thousand dollars and to join him on a gambling trek down to Mississippi, hoping to reclaim his lost mojo as a major player, not to mention to make some much needed cash to pay back his debts.  Curtis agrees, and the two begin their southern odyssey together, stopping along the way to deal with personal business when the opportunity presents itself.  Unfortunately, their relationship hits major snags when it becomes very clear to Curtis that Gerry is an intrinsically untrustworthy man that just may not stop – ever – from doing anything to gamble his petty life away. 

MISSISSIPPI GRIND ultimately becomes a deeply disturbing portrait of self-destruction.  On one level, it never sensationalizes or glamorizes gambling as an exhilarating pursuit that will eventually lead to an obligatory “big game” at the film’s conclusion where the protagonists come out on top.  Even when the film teases at some level of financial success for Gerry and Curtis, there always remains a dark underbelly of foreshadowing doom for them.  Gerry is not a morally reprehensible man, per se, as much as he is a pathetic one that has no understanding of his own limits.  Gambling, in many ways, is a drug that fuels his daily desires to win, and when bad luck and misfortune rears their ugly heads he nevertheless marches on, completely oblivious to the type of psychological damage he’s doing to himself.  The more we bare witness to this man’s inability to curtail his urges the more chilling the film becomes. 

As they have demonstrated with their past films, Boden and Fleck once again play into our expectations of the material on MISSISSIPPI GRIND.  In a wonderful bit of bait and switch, their overall handling of Curtis acts as a wonderful foil to Gerry.  Usually in films like this it’s the older and world-wearier mentor that serves as a stern voice of reason for the younger protégée, but here Curtis – even though he too is a gambling degenerate – understands the importance of knowing when…to quit…something that’s altogether foreign to Gerry.  Curtis also seems to present an image of himself that’s relatively genuine despite some impure motives, whereas Gerry will lie and cheat his way to money out of pure self-loathing desperation.  Lesser films would have the young hotshot be developed as a sinister figure with a lecherous gameplan for the downtrodden and emotionally beaten down Gerry, but MISSISSIPPI GRIND displays great foresight in showing Curtis as a man that seems to genuinely care about his older partner’s well being.  There exists hidden layers of depths to both men that many other dramas frankly wouldn’t have time – nor the inclination – to explore. 

Boden and Fleck craft a multitude of masterfully rendered character scenes that only typify the tragedy that is Gerry’s life.  One encounter in particular is almost painful to view, during which time Gerry makes a pit stop to reunite with his ex-wife (Robin Weigert) that begins with relative peace and calm, but then escalates to a dreadful crescendo where he commits a heinous action that underscores what a sick and damaged man he has become.  The only light at the end of the proverbial tunnel exists for Curtis, as he’s shown pining throughout the film for some semblance of a normal domestic life away from gambling and the lifestyle.  All of this is greatly assisted by the film’s delightfully uncharacteristic casting calls.  Reynolds has made a career of playing cocky heroes in comedies and action films, but he’s at a career best here playing a role with a subtlety and tact that I’ve not witnessed from him before.  Mendelsohn owns this film though, especially for the way he so thoroughly inhabits is roles with such an economy.  He perhaps doesn’t get the reward recognition that he rightfully deserves, mostly for how internalized his performances are: he rarely engages in camera mugging hysterics to sell scenes.  He’s so nuanced that his work tends to fly in under the radar, which is, ironically enough, what makes him such a dynamic on-screen talent to watch. 

MISSISSIPPI GRIND is not a flashy film that draws attention to itself, which is largely why I became so enamored with it.  Boden and Fleck capture the nuances of their wayward characters and their respective journeys with a unique viewfinder that’s simply not abundant in many American dramas these days.  Their films have a lived-in texture and credibility that draw and invite us in, despite the more ominous tones of despair they take latter on.  Even when it appears that Gerry has achieved a major victory near the end of MISSISSIPPI GRIND, Boden and Fleck tap us on the shoulders and remind us that this man is perhaps beyond any semblance of redemption.  Like HALF NELSON and SUGAR before it, MISSISSIPPI GRIND dares to go well beyond stale and overused genre troupes and, as a result, becomes a drama that keeps viewers off balance and guessing as to its narrative trajectory.  The film is also not afraid to relay a sad truth that, sometimes, no hope is in sight for the most beleaguered of souls. 

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