One of my favourite things about the cinematic calendar after the crashes and bangs of the summer season have passed are all of the smaller, less genre focused films that pop their heads out and grace our screens before the heavy hitters of awards season start to take over. In a week where Spectre is destined to grab all of the headlines, I chose to start with Mississippi Grind, a film that I know very little about, but also a film of which I had only heard good things from those who had already seen it.
Mississippi Grind is a drama with a comic tendencies about two men who form a friendship over a love of gambling and embark on a road trip across the South to New Orleans in hope of hitting the jackpot. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is down on his luck, on a hard losing streak and in debt to several different people in his life, but his luck seems to change when he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a younger, care free gambler who breathes new life in to him and the two hatch a plan to travel to New Orleans, hitting up local gambling spots on the way and planning to enter a high stakes poker tournament at their final destination. The film is an incredibly easy watch, but do not be mistaken in to thinking that because of it’s accessible nature it is without substance. It is funny, touching, dramatic and most importantly of all, it displays both the highs and lows of a gambling lifestyle that make it easy to see why so many people become so irreversibly addicted to the process. The filmmakers have achieved something really impressive in the way that the picture feels light and lively but at the same time does not shy away from showing the darker side of what a gambling addiction can do to a person. We see characters beaten up for their activities, at one point even stabbed, but the disturbing and intriguing thing about it is that the audience become accustomed to these actions as part and parcel of the gambling lifestyle, which I am sure is intended to echo exactly just how easily a person can descend in to the darker side of the ‘sport’ without realising their life has become completely abnormal. We get to see the lowest lows and the highest highs of these two men as their road trip across the South takes in river boat poker games, local casino roulette and daytime greyhound racing, and amidst all of this unpredictability and worrying disregard to personal and financial security, what makes the film as charming as it is is the thread of optimism (sometimes misguided) that stays with both Gerry and Curtis throughout, it certainly wavers at critical points during the narrative, but both characters’ determination and will to succeed make for a really endearing watch. The sort of laid back, almost lazy, atmosphere that a film set along the Mississippi river creates, mixed with the high tension of numerous gambling set pieces, makes for a really enjoyable and unique feeling picture.
Much of the film’s heart comes from the excellent performances and chemistry that is created by Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds. A film about gambling addiction isn’t normally the sort of film where one would expect to find a fun bromance, but that really is the word to describe the relationship between Gerry and Curtis. As Gerry, Mendelsohn gives a performance full of both desperation and determination, desperation at his constant bad luck and determination to rectify his situation by being successful at the only thing he knows how to do. In the hands of a lesser actor, Gerry’s character, with all of his bad decisions, could have been a real turn off for the audience, but the charisma and charm that Mendelsohn brings to the role helps to be make him a flawed but ultimately endearing protagonist. To compliment Mendelsohn’s Gerry, Ryan Reynolds give an enigmatic performance as Curtis, a happy go lucky, confident, magnetic presence that provides the ying to Gerry’s yang, so to speak. The two characters are completely different in demeanour and personality, but together they bring out both the best and worst in one another and the events of their road trip display this wonderfully. Reynolds could easily have taken a step too far and turned Curtis in to something of an over cool parody, but the actor shows nuance and restraint, and the result is a fun character who, though definitely eccentric, remains believable.
Overall, Mississippi Grind is a little gem of a comedy-drama that deserves much wider exposure than it has received, in the United Kingdom at least. Part buddy movie, part gambling movie, part road trip movie, the film covers a number of well worn genres but feels refreshingly different to anything I have seen in a long while. An entertaining and engaging story full of fun dialogue and fun set pieces that still manages convey a more serious tone when it wants to. Well worth a watch.