Gambling films are hard. You’d think there would be some implicit drama in watching a person at the tables – after all, it fits the very definition of a high-stakes battle. Yet inevitably on screen it just turns into a wait-em-out scenario, where the protagonist is going to win big, or lose big. Gambling’s rarely like that, it’s hours of waiting, chipping away, maybe going home after you’re up, maybe staying just a bit too long when you’re down more than you should be. It’s rarely life and death. It’s rarely stupid.
Yet on screen, well, we’ve got to have the swings, and we’ve got to have things get either very, very bad or very, very good to have a narrative impact. When the film has gambling that’s not about the gambling (think James Bond) then it’s really about character and not the fact that there’s no way he should go all in on that particular bet. For other movies, like the recent Wahlberg starrer The Gambler, you’ve got a morality tale witnessing someone whose clearly not very good at blackjack being a total idiot.
Mississippi Grind certainly uses gambling as more than just a metaphor, it’s a critical part of the narrative flow with numerous games being played out on screen. But of course it’s also used thematically, demonstrating recklessness, tenacity, and chutzpah to lay everything out on the. We’ve got all kinds of vices at play here – horse racing, blackjack, roulette, craps, poker – all to show that Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a degenerate, and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) is an enabler.
Even when it’s done it’s unclear where writer/director Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were going with this thing, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. The film floats, kinda, like that riverboat we visit in St. Louis, taking us down the river while things take place within and we’re not entirely sure why we’re even there. Along the way we meet sirens (Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton) and some who provide conflict (Alfre Woodard, Robin Weigert) as we watch pathetic men do pathetic things for no other reason than it seems to be what one does.
Yet there’s no grand moral conclusion to the thing either, no bottom from which the protagonists cannot escape. The film’s lack of moralizing ends up being kind of unsettling, as if we’re expecting the final shoe to drop and it never does.
Mendelsohn is excellent as always, a truly engaging presence on screen. Reynolds is fine yet often not believable as the Machiavellian manipulator – Jake Gyllenhaal was originally approached for the role, and surely the combo of him and Mendelsohn would have elevated things even higher.
Like their last film It’s Kind of a Funny Story this one feels like it’s off kilter, just not quite enough to make it sit in a sweet spot. We’ve got comedy, we’ve got drama, and it doesn’t ever gel enough for us to really be drawn in. There’s bits that work, but generally it all feels a bit slapdash, an aimlessness that’s part intentional, part distracting.
As a slight, at times compelling character piece Mississippi Grind is fine, but like the river it meanders, never quite coming into its own the way you’d want it to.