Mississippi Grind (2015 Sundance)

8 Feb

Director Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) hits the fast-paced world of gambling with his latest Sundance Film Festival entry Mississippi Grind. Set at various casinos up and down the Mississippi River, the film follows Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a longtime gambling addict, and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a fellow gambler.  Gerry, (who is long overdue on his payments and owes money to half his friends and family) plays the poker game as a last-effort resort to make his payments. Curtis is just in it for the fun, or as he says “I like meeting gamblers”. The two form a tight friendship and decide to enter a high profile tournament in New Orleans.

It becomes clear early on that Gerry needs to win big and will either be coming back home as a winner or not at all. His technique involves playing a CD with hundreds of audio tips (“…number 85 – A player with a furrowed brow indicates disappointment. He or she might be holding a bad hand…”) in his car as the two journey together. Curtis on the other hand, has enough money, but is just a traveler by nature, never staying in one town for two long. According to him, the journey is more important than the destination.

Most of Mississippi Grind takes the form of a road movie, with Curtis and Gerry meeting a colorful assortment of characters and playing a series of small-time games together as they make their way down south.  Heartbeat Ryan Reynolds gives a solid performance, but it is really Ben Mendelsohn who steals the show. Mendelsohn, who has long been underrated character actor, totally dissolves into his character and shows the many mannerisms of a gambling addict. To such a person, every little thing becomes something to bet against (at one point, Gerry impulsively bets $1000 on whether or not the next person walking out of the restroom will have glasses on) and their only way of coping with life’s stresses is to constantly be winning.

Watching these two characters on screen is incredibly satisfying, but their chemistry is sadly restrained by the simple story. The atmosphere is there, the acting is there, the music is fantastic – but what this film is missing is a narrative dramatic enough to match the performances. We never really get a sense of how much this poker tournament means to each character, and it feels like they are just onscreen to fill time and space.  Without much of a purpose or a need to be there, the film just feels like an unnecessary road trip.  It has its moments for sure (the final 15 minutes is quite incredible) but as a whole, Mississippi Grind just isn’t compelling enough to merit much other than a simple bromance between two gambling addicts.

Rating: 6/10 

Similar to: The Gambler (1974), Hard Eight (1996), Sideways (2004) 

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