Mississippi Grind (15)
Verdict: Compelling study of two men on the road
A wonderfully observed character study of a pair of compulsive gamblers on a road trip, Mississippi Grind is also a study of a slice of Americana that we don’t often see in the movies; shabby, even a little sleazy, but mostly honest, and populated by folk who exude a kind of jaded optimism, reckoning that around the next corner there might be a better life, although probably not.
Ben Mendelsohn is absolutely superb as Gerry, a down-at-heel real estate broker with an ex-wife and a daughter he never sees, in hock all over town and unable to pay off his gambling debts due to an irredeemable habit of staking whatever he has in his pocket on the next card game or dog race.
The start of the film finds him listening to a tape, analysing the body language of the poker player. He learns that the player who sits lower and lower during a hand is progressively revealing his weakness, and indeed the film progressively reveals Gerry’s weaknesses.
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Ben Mendelsohn is absolutely superb as Gerry, a down-at-heel real estate broker with an ex-wife and a daughter he never sees, in hock all over town and unable to pay off his gambling debts due to an irredeemable habit of staking whatever he has in his pocket on the next card game or dog race
He’s a loser, but such is the sensitivity of Mendelsohn’s performance, that he is impossible not to like.
His luck changes not with the big payout he craves, but when a charismatic stranger at the same poker table stands him a glass of top-quality bourbon. This is Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), an adventurer and romantic only slightly less feckless than Gerry himself, but with more charm.
Reynolds was woefully miscast in his last big-screen outing, Woman In Gold, but this is a peach of a role, which he blesses with the performance of his career.
Gerry and Curtis become friends, and it is a tribute to the quality of writing (by indie filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who also directed), as well as the acting, that we don’t have any idea how their relationship will evolve.
Sienna Miller beautifully plays a hooker called hooker, who is Curtis’s (Ryan Reynolds) sometime girlfriend
Reynolds was woefully miscast in his last big-screen outing, Woman In Gold, but this is a peach of a role, which he blesses with the performance of his career
Will one let the other down? It seems likely. For these two are so consumed by betting that it’s how they determine almost everything. They can’t even decide whether to leave a dog track, or stay for the next race, without it boiling down to whether the next man to emerge from the washrooms is wearing glasses or not.
But they are different, Gerry and Curtis. Neither of them knows what the next roll of the dice will bring, in life as well as on the casino baize, but while Gerry is imprisoned by the uncertainty, Curtis is liberated by it. ‘When you come to a fork in the road, you take it,’ he says cheerfully, quoting the late baseball player Yogi Berra.
They decide to head to New Orleans, where Curtis knows of a big-stakes poker game. But as he keeps saying, ‘the journey is the destination’.The same is true of the film itself. What becomes of them is almost incidental to the pleasure of spending time with them.
Anyway, like a pair of latter-day Huckleberry Finns, they set off following the mighty Mississippi south, stopping in St Louis where they hang out with Curtis’s sometime girlfriend Simone, a hooker (beautifully) played by Sienna Miller.
Gerry, too, gets some romantic interest, in the form of Simone’s dreamy pal Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton). Later, he also takes a diversion to Little Rock, Arkansas, to call on his ex-wife (Robin Weigert). It’s a heartbreaking encounter, encapsulating his hopelessness and her sadness. She knows his failings better than he knows them himself.
But the bond that really matters here is the one between the two men. And it’s such a fine, dialogue-heavy script that it feels like a privilege to listen in, as they get to know one another.
The writer-directors have said that Mississippi Grind (the name, unsurprisingly, of a racehorse) was inspired by the great character-study films of the Seventies, and certainly it’s not hard to pick up on the Midnight Cowboy vibe. But whatever the inspiration, this is a minor classic in its own right, maybe just a touch too sentimental towards the end, but a compelling celebration of male friendship all the same, with a blues soundtrack to be treasured, and a pair of lead performances worthy of awards.