Gamblers never win. They may win in the short term with a big roll of the dice or flopping a full house, but they will always be consumed by an addiction that will ultimately negate any profit. Mississippi Grind flirts with the emotional state of compulsive gamblers, but the film is so shapeless that it becomes ambivalent about whether or not its characters’ actions have meaning. In the struggle to find an ending, the movie’s impact, which is slight to begin with, is further diminished. Although writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck manage to give their picture the same highs and lows of gambling addiction, and despite an excellent performance from Ben Mendelsohn, the movie can only break even at best.
While playing poker at a casino in Iowa, compulsive gambler Gerry (Mendelsohn) meets charming fellow gambler Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). The two men bond over bourbon and their willingness to bet on anything. Gerry is the prototypical gambling addict—lonely and in debt to the point of being beaten by a loan shark—and Curtis is the ideal gambler, not only in that he’s handsome and charismatic, but he also claims that winning doesn’t matter to him. Desperate to pay off his loan sharks, Gerry convinces Curtis to stake the money for a run across casinos and home games down the Mississippi in an attempt to make $25,000 so he can enter a high-stakes poker game. Across their trip, both men show their addiction to gambling springs from their failure to create and keep meaningful relationships.
Watching people gamble is easy drama because if they win big, it’s exciting, and if they lose, it’s sad. Boden and Fleck try to ride that wave, and we’re sucked in with the bright, colorful excitement of the casino floor, and the drained, dry palette when Gerry and Curtis are scraping for the next gambling high. The world is dull and uninteresting without the thrill of rolling the dice or winning a big hand. Perhaps the film drags intentionally during these scenes, but the point could be just as effectively conveyed through the cinematography, editing, and performances. The film has a tone, and the directors don’t need to force it.
The only benefit of drawing out the picture is we get more Mendelsohn, who is one of the best character actors working today. We’re not surprised by Gerry’s actions (we’re fairly familiar with how a compulsive gambler behaves), but his performance beautifully and quietly taps into the character’s desperation and sadness. Even if Boden and Fleck hadn’t tacked on the symbol of Gerry using band aids to stop a stab wound, we’d get everything we need from Mendelsohn’s sad eyes that flicker to life when there’s even the slightest chance he can get in the game. Reynolds gives a strong supporting performance, but the movie belongs to his co-star.
Sadly, the filmmakers never seem satisfied with what they have. Again, this may mirror the characters’ behavior to keep chasing a high and trying to find a big win, but the experience is tedious and frustrating rather than captivating. Because the film coasts off the highs and lows of gambling, it lacks a personality, and cycles through a series of endings until the themes of the movie are rendered meaningless. It’s almost fascinating to see how the conclusion of a story completely redefines everything that came before, especially when it comes down to wins and losses. Mississippi Grind can is a story of failure just as easily as it is a story of hope.
In a bit of heavy foreshadowing, Curtis relates an anecdote to Gerry about a gambler who was up high enough to pay off all his debts and have a little cash left over, but when he ended up losing everything at the tables, the guy shrugged it off and said he had only lost his original buy in. Mississippi Grind draws in the audience with strong performances and a clever approach, but eventually we just want to step away from the table as the movie continues to keep playing for a satisfying conclusion.
Click here for all of our Sundance 2015 coverage. Click on the links below for our other reviews:
- The Bronze
- The End of the Tour
- In Football We Trust
- The Mask You Live In
- Most Likely to Succeed
- Slow West
- Stockholm, Pennsylvania
- White God
- Z for Zachariah