Movie Review: Mississippi Grind
Review By: Spencer Blohm
As the fourth offering from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Mississippi Grind seems to be where they are starting to slump. This isn’t to say it’s a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s a wholly decent film that puts Emmy nominated Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds on a road trip down the Mississippi River to a high stakes poker game in New Orleans, but it spends much of its time navel gazing in an attempt to be more than a standard gambling movie. It is more than a standard gambling movie, but perhaps not quite enough.
Down-on-his-luck Gerry (Mendelsohn) is crawling from small time game to small time game trying to make enough money to get himself out of debt when he meets Curtis (Reynolds), an upbeat player loaded with stories about classic games on legendary gambling circuits. Gerry, convinced that Curtis is his lucky charm (and setting off a string of leprechaun/pot of gold metaphors that will start to overstay their welcome by the end of the film), suggests that they go on the road together.
What makes this film different from other gambling films with similar premises like The Color of Money is that it is ultimately less about gambling and more about the dying of these character’s concepts of masculinity as well as how they relate to the idea of friendship. While lacking any real narrative drive seeing as how there is no ticking clock to get them moving to their destination, Mississippi Grind is not afraid to meander around its various set pieces and allow its characters time to talk and reflect.
Both Fleck and Boden are incredible at getting subtle performances out of their actors, and this is no less true of Mendelsohn and Reynolds in this film. Both create characters that are fully formed. Their primary personality traits, addiction for Gerry and reflexive gregariousness for Curtis, don’t overshadow that there’s more to each that is revealed as the film goes on.
The problem is that the subtlety doesn’t extend to the camera. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh does an amazing job of showing us a desolate America that lacks the flash of other gambling films, but much of the film is focused on our two characters staring off into an uncertain distance while they discuss their uncertainty. Film is a visual medium, but like with other forms of communication, it is possible to be visually melodramatic and Mississippi Grind starts to get into that territory.
Moreover, while this film seems to throw back to 70’s-era gambling films, the ending is far too positive to really fit into that mold. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily, except the character doesn’t seem to learn anything to justify it and the movie isn’t trying to indict an industry like Nightcrawler was when it gave its irredeemable sociopath ghoul his goals. The end just feels unearned, as likable as Gerry is.
So far critics have been generally happy with the film, praising it as better than Fleck and Boden’s last offering It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which didn’t hold to the promise of their first two films. Fans are still weighing in, though thanks to a collaboration between A24 and DirecTV, Mississippi Grind is widely distributed and can be seen by a bigger audience than just the film festival crowd.
There is a lot to like about this film and it’s a must-see, but it’s also not perfect and audiences may have some trouble getting through the bleak introspection to find the hopeful message boarded up behind abandoned buildings on forgotten roads.