“It’s Machu Picchu time”
Filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck‘s latest Mississippi Grind is an interesting creature. It has no ulterior motives whatsoever and that’s a unique attribute for a movie about gambling. You can’t watch loudmouth storyteller Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) happen upon the same poker table as down on his luck sad sack Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) without knowing he’s in the midst of a con. We don’t know what he could want from a guy who is joining sixty-dollar buy-in tournaments to pray he’ll be able to pay-off the numerous people he owes, but something just isn’t right. And if somehow Curtis is genuinely a good-natured guy who wants nothing more than a good time, it must be Gerry working an angle.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that neither is duping anyone but himself. Their tale of adventure down the Mississippi River to earn twenty-five large—Curtis staking and Gerry playing—and a seat at the infamous Tony Roundtree’s table is simply one of woe, guilt, tragedy, and the quest for a rock-bottom both are in desperate need of hitting to finally pull themselves up. We get a taste of this reality check when Curtis is having a heart-to-heart with former flame Simone (Sienna Miller), the details of which appear to label what he’s doing with Gerry as the same old pattern. “The journey is the destination” and fortune cookie rhetoric to mask the loneliness and sorrow get him up in the morning as the rush of the unknown sustains him.
Gerry has it a bit worse as he has been teetering on ground zero for what must be months or more. He’s already lost his wife (Robin Weigert) and daughter, has bookies threatening to kill his cat or worse (Alfre Woodard oddly enough plays the calmest and therefore most fierce of them all in a very brief cameo), and finds himself in the middle of the worst losing streak of his life. It’s Curtis’ arrival as a rabbit’s foot in shining armor that seems to be turning things around. The guy can’t lose—not even a 50/50 flip of a coin. If Gerry can persuade him to team up and make this trip he knows they can clear big cash to experience a story they’ll cherish forever and the bread to start anew.
But promises they’ve made themselves and others aren’t easily kept when you’re living life one hand at a time with the bottom of a bourbon glass to keep you warm. Boden and Fleck purposefully structure their film to paint one man as the mess and the other as wild and secure with nothing tying him down or quelling his appetite for risk. It isn’t long before we realize, however, that the latter is as broken and lost as the former. They’ve both ruined relationships, drift around from city to city because they fear going home, and crave the allure of victory. Curtis is pragmatic and logical, able to call it quits when the good has gotten too good, though. Gerry doesn’t know the definition of stopping.
Because these characters are so similar beneath their disparate surfaces, it can be frustrating that nothing crazy happens between them. We anticipate huge drama that never comes, but this isn’t the fault of the directors or the film itself. Mississippi Grind is a lesson in not letting expectations or presumptions rule your experience when looking at a piece of art. This movie isn’t beholden to a set of rules and regulations to be what everything else is. We should be ecstatic that it doesn’t tread that same tired path we’ve seen countless times before. Give me a year or two to rewatch knowing the plot so I don’t project my hypotheses upon it and I could see myself loving it. Sadly I’m writing this after my initial viewing.
In this context it feels slight and full of missed opportunities for drama despite the character trajectories being highly dramatic. Both Curtis and Gerry go through the wringer of highs and lows, trust and mistrust, confidence and hopelessness. This roller coaster proves to be an emotionally draining ride that’s helped by Reynolds’ sarcastic wit and Mendelsohn’s addict itching for the next score. They go to some dark places, get bruised and battered in the process, and return to pasts they still aren’t ready to face. Curtis puts on a good show for himself as the compassionate hero living vicariously through another because he doesn’t have the guts to take that insane risk and Gerry never wavers from the thought his time will come.
We don’t need flashy sleight-of-hand because that’s not Boden and Fleck’s goal. They’re aiming at the human psyche and our capacity to implode without regard of our own wellbeing. This doesn’t mean a touch of “magic” isn’t sprinkled in with verbal and visual cues highlighting a recurring motif of luck/destiny through “rainbows”, but it’s more a wink than plot device with any credence beyond the irrational sense of importance Curtis and Gerry place upon it. I’ll be honest in saying the ending’s direction is unexpected, but I understand why. It’s not the dark conclusion you feel awaits nor the happily ever after you fear. It’s instead bittersweet like the whole’s over-arching adult parable of redemption. But the question remains whether this pair is ready to accept it.
courtesy of TIFF