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Review: Mississippi Grind (2015)

Mississippi Grind (2015)

Directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Premise: A compulsive gambler (Ben Mendelsohn) facing financial hardship teams up with a charismatic card shark (Ryan Reynolds). They travel south along the Mississippi River, intending to score big in backroom poker games on their way to a tournament in New Orleans.

What Works: One of the stranger developments in sports broadcasting has been the advent of televised poker games. Some sports are more visually interesting than others but watching other people play poker is about as thrilling as watching someone fold laundry. That’s the difference between watching and playing; the excitement of poker is internal and it requires the players to maintain a flat demeanor. Translated to cinema, that tension can make for compelling storytelling and Mississippi Grind is a smart film that captures the excitement of gambling and the lifestyle that it cultivates. The film is led by Ben Mendelsohn as Gerry, a real estate agent who is also a compulsive gambler. Mendelsohn is very good in this film. This is at heart an addiction narrative and Mendelsohn captures the high that Gerry experiences in the midst of a wager and his desperation to be a winner. When it comes to addiction stories, there are two fundamental approaches. In some cases the addict is a fool who the storytellers hold up to ridicule but in other cases the addict is an empathetic person who just can’t escape his or her appetites. Mississippi Grind is in the latter category. Although Gerry makes some terrible decisions and gradually descends toward rock bottom the film maintains empathy with him. The gambling sequences possess the excitement that people feel in the midst of the game but it goes further still; a compulsive gambler is someone who is overcome by a poisonous form of hope. This is where Mendelsohn’s performance is so impressive. It’s this man’s undying faith in the next hand of cards that gets him into so much trouble. Ben Mendelsohn is paired with Ryan Reynolds as carefree gambler Curtis. This is a case of very good casting. Reynolds frequently plays smooth and witty characters and Curtis calls upon Reynolds’ strengths as an actor. But in Mississippi Grind Reynolds is a bit more nuanced than usual; he’s got the wit but it’s packaged in a more human dimension. As Gerry and Curtis work their way south, they are immersed in the culture of casinos and backroom gambling. The film has an authentic sense of place and Mississippi Grind has a great look throughout. It captures the vibe of street level gambling and a lot of the locations and supporting players have a local look instead of Hollywood gloss.
What Doesn’t: The weakest element of Mississippi Grind is the ending. The truth about gambling is that it is almost always a losing proposition especially if the odds of winning are less than fifty-fifty. When movies portray games of chance as games of skill it is always a bit dishonest and when they characterize betting as a path to a better life it is a message of false hope. Mississippi Grind portrays a character who keeps putting his winnings on the table and as a result keeps losing. For much of the story, Mississippi Grind is honest about the folly of that path but the movie entertains the idea that financial glory is just one more hand away. That works for the film and gives credibility to the character’s continued gambling. But without giving too much away, the finale of the movie betrays the healthy cynicism that characterizes the rest of the picture and it suggests that our main character has learned his limitations. The finale is inconsistent with the tone of the story although it does make Mississippi Grind satisfying in the fashion of a mainstream Hollywood movie.

DVD extras: Featurette.

Bottom Line: Mississippi Grind is a road trip movie and we’ve seen that before but it’s done with a great deal of humor and humanity. This film breaks out of its genre trappings to tell a highly entertaining story with terrific performances by Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds.

Episode: #581 (February 7, 2016)