For the first time in a while, I sit down to write a review without knowing what rating I’ll give the film in question. Mississippi Grind, in evoking the low-key, ambiguous character pieces of the 70s, could end up at any one of several places along my critical spectrum. Of course, it could be argued I get a little too tied up in those five stars and 100 points, but I’ve been applying them to films for years now, and it’s not like Mississippi Grind is the kind of game-changing film to break the pattern. (If anything, the film which has most defied my scale has been Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.)
One might say it’s an unshowy film about showiness. Or a con film without a con. It’s the kind of film which had me waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it rarely does in quite the way I expected. I don’t think it quite packs that extra punch to make it a great film, but it is without doubt a good one.
In Dubuque, Iowa, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a ne’er-do-well real estate salesman with a gambling problem. Deep in debt to loanshark Sam (Alfre Woodard), he finds himself falling in with Curtis Vonn (Ryan Reynolds), an itinerant gambler who takes a sincere interest in Gerry, and intrigues him by mentioning an exclusive poker game in New Orleans (poker being Gerry’s game of choice).
When their paths cross a second time, seemingly by pure chance, Gerry, feeling the pinch from Sam, suggests taking a trip down the Mississippi, gambling as they go, ending up at the fabled poker game in New Orleans. Curtis agrees to stake Gerry on this trip, and they set off southward, encountering an old flame of Curtis’ in St. Louis, Simone (Sienna Miller) and Curtis’ ex-wife Dorothy (Robin Weigert) in Little Rock, before arriving in New Orleans, where their adventures take a number of twists and turns neither anticipated.
As a character drama, Mississippi Grind invites us to meditate upon its characters. Gerry is the sad sack par excellence; a man whose frustrations stem from the knowledge that he is his own worst enemy, a man seeking a break, the kind of man who would fall in love with someone like Curtis at first sight, because Curtis is so dangerously likable, so empathetic and sincere that you can’t believe he’s real. Suavity and confidence come naturally to Curtis, and those moments when Gerry tries to display them are the more pathetic because they are so clearly the product of Curtis’ influence. To see Gerry put his faith in Curtis puts one on edge, because you can’t help but wait for Curtis to break his heart.
But Curtis is no cut-and-dried hustler. You wait for the film to reveal his true amorality, but it never quite does. Reuniting with Simone seems to spark Curtis’ desire for connection and commitment, but in a scene late in the film, he sees his mother (Marshall Chapman) performing in a New Orleans dive, and after a brief reunion (and a friendly if not familial one), he leaves. He is always on the move and has friends everywhere, but settling down seems to be out of the question. Why that is is never spelled out, because the film is no more interested in breaking down Curtis’ rootlessness any more than it is in breaking down Gerry’s compulsive gambling.
In the 70s tradition, we are presented with these men and their world in a frank manner, and introspection is largely foregone in favor of simply showing them embarking on their little adventure. It may be that part of the film’s failure to become truly great comes from this detachment–it is an issue I have had with such films as inspired it. This is not to say it is a dispassionate or cold film, so much as an objective one. At times, this approach works beautifully. At other times, it results in the film feeling a little flat and earthbound.
The approach works best when the film sticks to the corners of the world where the 70s live on in some fashion, in the rundown businesses and dive bars of midwestern America, the locales which Andrij Parekh’s cinematography captures in fine, unfussy fashion. When the setting shifts to the glossy, impersonal modern casinos, the vintage edge and flavor is lost, and the film feels a bit less special for it. And by focusing mostly on the major cities between Dubuque and New Orleans (St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock, etc.), the film doesn’t quite feel like the Mississippi River odyssey proposed early on (“like fucking Huck Finn and Jim”). It may be a misguided tactic to blame a film for what it is not, but it’s worth noting what it does best and that it does not always do thus.
The third act is where the film departs most from the 70s model when it first seems to most adhere to it. On reaching New Orleans, Gerry and Curtis go to a racetrack, having pawned the car and a box of valuables Gerry has kept for such a purpose, and seemingly lose most of what money they had left. Gerry wants to try again with what they have left, but Curtis, realizing the depths of Gerry’s addiction, refuses, and sends him off with a $100 bill. We then see that Curtis bet on the winner and made a few thousand, and he sets off by himself. Here, I figured, Curtis’ true nature would be revealed, Gerry would go off into the sunset with nothing, and the nihilistic 70s ending would be achieved.
Then, Gerry decides to track down the poker game himself, and ultimately finds himself at the door of Tony Roundtree (veteran writer-director James Toback), who lets Gerry beg for information, finally name-dropping Curtis, before giving him a punch in the face for his trouble. Curtis, meanwhile, goes to a dive bar and meets his mother, before heading off into the night. After these dueling cameos (which I hadn’t even realized until just now), the film takes a turn which may well divide viewers in their responses.
Gerry goes to a casino and puts down the last of his money on a game of blackjack. He begins to win. Curtis runs into him and begins to play him. Gerry continues to win, and ultimately accumulates a decent little pile of chips. They go to the craps table and begin to play, and Gerry’s streak continues, until finally, they risk a $285,000 chip pile on a single dice roll, telling each other “We can’t lose.” Gerry throws the dice, and–
We cut to Gerry and Curtis at a table laden with lobsters and steaks, Curtis eating ravenously, Gerry eating nothing, and complaining that his steak tastes off, before asking the waitress for a cheeseburger (a nice touch–a man so used to failure that he literally cannot stomach success). They discuss their future plans, Gerry saying he wants to do something nice for his daughter.
Come the morning, Gerry goes to a safe in their hotel suite and looks at their pile of winnings, pondering what to do with them. Later, Curtis wakes up (with a woman by his side), ignoring a phone call from Simone, and discovers that Gerry has left with his share of the money, leaving a cheerful note telling Curtis to finally travel to Peru (which has mentioned throughout the film as his dream destination, sincerely or not). Curtis checks out of the hotel, telling the desk clerk he means to go to Peru, before asking her to join him.
Finally, we see Gerry buying a car (or buying his old car back, I don’t recall), and the film ends with him sitting in his car, listening to a CD which lists off 200 common poker tells, which he has done throughout the film.
This third act gave me a lot to chew on. First–and this is of course a reflection of the expectations I brought to the table–there are several points where it could have ended, with the characters down and out, and it would have been in keeping with the bleak, ambiguous finales of many 70s films. I kept waiting–throughout the entire film, really–for the shoe to drop, for Curtis to be proven a villain, for Gerry to lose everything, perhaps even his life, through his inability to help himself. The film does end with Gerry filling his ears with the same you-can-be-a-winner-too crap he’s been hearing for ages, but given the previous fakeout of him seeing the money in the safe and not blowing it entirely, we can’t be sure just what he’ll do next.
Then there’s the whole idea of Gerry having an insane streak of luck, ending with him winning the final throw of dice and walking away with $570,000 to split between him and Curtis. Some would call bullshit. But to me, the film is just showing us the nature of luck. Sometimes, you do get lucky. Sometimes you beat the odds and actually seize a bit of glory for yourself. And Gerry, who has brought himself to so much grief, can hardly compute it when he does. He is in uncharted waters. And the film leaves him there, which is not a bad place for such a film as this.
As you might have inferred by now, the script by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck has a lot going for it. What it chooses to show and what it leaves out often works in its favor, and when it does, it is not a fatal flaw. And their direction, best when it sticks to showing the hidden corners of the world, those places where time seems to have stopped 30 or 40 years earlier, keeps the film moving along just fine. Technically, it rarely puts a foot wrong.
The acting, though, is the main attraction, and it’s almost uniformly good. Mendelsohn’s work is not quite as revelatory as I expected, but he never overplays Gerry’s desperate attempts to seem knowing or confident, his fundamentally pathetic nature, or his awareness of his own failings. It’s a very strong performance, one which the awards groups will probably overlook completely, and that’s too bad. (In fact, I suspect the film will be completely overlooked come awards season, and will be quite happy to be proven wrong.)
Reynolds is arguably even better, using the smooth charisma which made him a star in the first place, but putting it in a rather different context. Here, being charmed by Curtis seems more like a risk than a reward, and even if Curtis isn’t a bad guy, you see how he feeds bad habits, makes empty claims, lives a lie, even unto himself. Like Mendelsohn, Reynolds never plays up any of Curtis’ qualities beyond their essential reality. Curtis is a suave, persuasive individual, and Reynolds plays that extremely well, but he also shows why one should be careful around such a man. It’s a perfectly measured performance, and since A24 is pushing Reynolds Supporting (even though he’s totally a co-lead), he probably stands the best chance of anyone or anything from the film getting awards attention.
Miller is completely adequate, but I have yet to see a performance of hers that was truly memorable. As Simone’s friend Vanessa, Analeigh Tipton outshines her; Vanessa and Gerry have a brief flirtation (she does a magic trick for him!), and Tipton provides a charming, yet sad presence, as a likable young woman stuck in an unrewarding position. She wins you over, yet you realize things will probably not work out as they should for her. As with many of the supporting roles, her presence could have been expanded upon (if you want to see more of her, see Whit Stillman’s great, underrated Damsels in Distress).
Alfre Woodard has less than 5 minutes of screentime (the role is almost insultingly truncated), but as the loanshark who treats her clients with the same gentle, yet controlling tone as she speaks to her children, she makes a hell of an impression. Weigert is arguably stuck with the harridan ex-wife role, but given the shit Gerry pulls, her attitude is entirely reasonable, and Weigert solidly conveys someone with no patience left for this sad-sack.
Mississippi Grind may not go down as one of the great films, or even one of the great films about gambling, but it has enough in its favor to be worth catching. I myself caught in the only local theater showing it, on the last day of its run, but home viewing is perfectly suitable for this small-time tale.