Have you ever read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? It’s more than 100 years old at this point. In case you haven’t read it, it’s a story that explores the subjects of race and identity. It has been studied over and over, because while it digs into the the existence of slavery, it also exists within the context of the time period and so there are a number of racial slurs and stereotypes played out in the story.
Odd then that I find myself watching a movie about the Mississippi and identity, but without the issues of race, well mostly.
Mississippi Grind (2016)
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Yvonne Landry, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton
Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
released on blu-ray Dec 1, 2015
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%, Audience Score 54%
The Guardian: ****/*****
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are American film directors that have a habit of working together. They have co-directed Have You Seen This Man, Gowanus Brooklyn, Young Rebels, Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story and now Mississippi Grind. Boden also co-wrote Half Nelson with Fleck while he directed that film.
It probably helps that they have been romantically involved, which as we all know if fostered probably leads to committed love, and whether they are still together or not (I don’t know and couldn’t figure it out), they obviously have a lot of love and respect for each other, which allows their stories to play out organically and realistically. It’s Kind of A Funny Story is one of my favourite movies after all.
Now, Mississippi Grind is the typical story of an odd couple, but rejuvenated with modern beats on gambler road movies. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a professional gambler who is on hard times, and definitely in a state of addiction to the sport. Upon visiting a casino in Iowa, he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) in a game of Texas hold’ em. Curtis is a bit younger, extroverted and friendly. Curtis beats Gerry in a hand and then buys him a premium glass of Bulleit bourbon, instead of Woodford. They become fast friends and leave on good terms.
Later in the evening, Gerry runs into Curtis at a bar, while Curtis plays darts. After discussing their views on life, Gerry learns that Curtis is successful at cards because he doesn’t care about winning and just likes to play. After a night of heavy drinking, they crash at Curtis’ place and then decide to hit the dog track. They initially win a lot of money, but because Gerry is unable to walk away, they end up losing it all. Afterwards they head to another bar where they test the waters on playing pool and try to bet the local sharks on a game of $1000. The men are not impressed and the odd couple are booted from the bar. Curtis decides it’s time to leave town, and on his way to his car, Gerry is threatened at knife point by a guy who overheard the $1000 bet. Not realizing that Gerry was bluffing, the man stabs him and then runs.
The following day Gerry meets up with a lady he owes money to, and she expects repayment immediately. Gerry lies and states that he was robbed and shows the knife wound. Gerry then runs into Curtis again at another bar, and decides that it is fate and that Curtis is his good luck charm. Gerry proposes a trip down the Mississippi, consisting of several major gambling destinations, and a final game of poker at New Orleans with a $25K buy-in. Curtis agrees, stakes him $2K and Gerry agrees to drive.
But if I share too much more, you won’t watch, so let’s split the pair.
Pros: An excellent portrayal of the nature of the gambler, and how mideast America is still full of these locales. Gambling culture has probably not been this well showcased in a decade or more. Reynolds and Mendelsohn are lovable and disgusting at the same time.
Cons: Some of the characterizations are a little textbook and the backstories of our two leads aren’t really fleshed out in a deep and meaningful way.
Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes
Points of Interest: Tony Roundtree, the gentleman that runs the New Orleans poker game, is played by James Toback, the guy that wrote The Gambler. The tattoo on Curtis’ leg is the same as the combination to his and Gerry’s hotel safe.
Mississippi Grind might come across as a boring and pathetic examination of addiction, but at the heart of it there is a lot more love between it’s characters and the nuances of their interactions with each other and their supporting cast is something to behold. The landscape of the film is rather sparse and washed out, but I think that it is intentional, to show that these guys are struggling against the typical humdrum of midlife.
Mississippi Grind fits itself right into the region in which it depicts, though it never quite addresses its reference to Huckleberry Finn and Jim directly. It is a spiritual exploration of two men from different worlds that become friends and fight against their environment and shortcomings in an attempt to escape to better circumstances. Does the movie achieve this end? In a word, yes. But you’ll just have to watch it yourselves to find out if I’m lying.