This throwback puts a couple habitual gamblers on a road trip down south as they partake in just about every form of betting along the way.
In just a handful of movies like Half Nelson and Sugar, co-writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have established themselves as filmmakers dedicated to tales of fumbling outsiders. They approach these characters with care and love, yet aren’t in any way bound presenting them as heroes or forcing their broken people into happy endings. They are far too honest as filmmakers for that. So it only makes sense that they would make a movie about degenerate gamblers and it would turn out to be the best film on the subject since the 70s gambling masterpieces California Split and The Gambler (It’s also no coincidence that James Toback the writer/director of the autobiographical The Gambler made a cameo in this movie rather than the remake of his own).
Ben Mendelsohn stars as a man who was born to lose, the type of person who shouldn’t be drawn to gambling, yet inevitably is. He’s deep in debt to pretty well everyone he knows and keeps digging a deeper hole convinced that he can get out of it. One day at a poker table, Ryan Reynolds walks in as a lost gambling soul of a different sort, and the two bond over hard luck stories and delicious bourbon. Reynolds has no home and wanders around seemingly aimless. Reynolds plans on taking a trip to New Orleans for a big game and since Mendelsohn considers the guy a good luck charm, he talks him into tagging along and hitting all of the legal and illegal low-level gambling spots along the way. At first they win big and have a sweet night with a pair of prostitutes, one of whom Reynolds enjoys an on again/off again love affair with (Sienna Miller). Everything seems great until it isn’t. As is the gambling way.
You have to give Boden and Fleck credit for being willing to base an entire film around a character with as self-destructive of a core as the broken man Mendelsohn plays here. He has a soft heart, but his addiction makes him do terrible things that he seems to be punished for at every turn. It’s often tough to simply sit back and watch him set himself up for another failure, yet it’s also undeniably and heartbreakingly compelling. Reynolds initially seems like a brighter light. He’s playing a variation of the sarcastic charmer that made him a star. The character is defined by philosophies he constantly spouts off like “I don’t care when I lose” or “the journey is the destination.” At first that makes him seem like a bouncing spark of light. Then as the film wears on, it’s clear that he also doesn’t care when he wins and that he’s terrified to settle into anything resembling home, traits that lead to their own brand of tragedy.
Boden and Fleck’s rambling study of these two broken men is fascinating, filled with bursts of character comedy (like Mendelsohn’s insistence on listening to a self-help poker CD rather than music as they drive) and harsh truths that their cameras linger on to the point of discomfort. The two actors are remarkable, with Mendelsohn finding the heart in someone who can’t help but destroy everyone around him and Reynolds finding the tragic core in his smiling persona. The filmmakers also find a rotted out side of America to shoot that suits their lovably deadbeat world. All the days seem overcast and the road trip defined by tableau images of crumbling monuments to Americana. It’s a side of life rarely seen in film because it’s a world that most like to ignore and even those who live within it long to escape. The writer/directors might stumble towards the end, unsure of how to end their story after hitting a number of beats that could have closed things out. But maybe that’s the point. After all, there’s rarely a satisfying button to cap off life and certainly no end to a gambling addiction, happy or otherwise.
Mississippi Grind actually looks far better on Blu-ray than you’d expect. Sure, it can’t compare with the gloss, sheen, and scale, of an HD blockbuster. However, Boden and Fleck did shoot on film, which has been beautifully recreated here. It’s a rough and tumble aesthetic to be sure, but one deliberately crafted and transferred to Blu-ray with a beautiful grain structure in tact. This feels like a grimey 70s movie in all the right ways and it’s nice to see that some actual ‘films’ still exist. It’s worth the HD treatment.
Unfortunately that’ll be the only real reason to pick up the Blu-ray. The special feature section is limited to single a 5-minute featurette that’s essentially promo sales piece with only a handful of “everyone’s great” talking head insights from the filmmakers and stars. It’s nice to hear how much they enjoyed making the flick, but given what a sad, funny, layered, and well researched movie that this is, it’s a shame that none of the collaborators got a chance to discuss it in much detail for posterity.
Does it deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
While you won’t get much in way of special features, Mississippi Grind is still a rather wonderful and underrated flick well worth checking out for fans of outsider 70s cinema.
For your chance to win a copy of Mississippi Grind on Blu-ray, check out our contest here.