Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Movie Review: Mississippi Grind

Mississippi Grind
Directed by: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck.
Written by: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck.
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn (Gerry), Ryan Reynolds (Curtis), Alfre Woodard (Sam), Sienna Miller (Simone), Analeigh Tipton (Vanessa), Robin Weigert (Dorothy), James Toback (Tony Roundtree).

I almost wish that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had just gone all out and set Mississippi Grind in the 1970s. The film is so inspired by the films of the era – the story, the style, the characters, the acting, the themes – that I would have loved for them to wholly embrace the style of the decade as well – not in a garish, American Hustle type way, but in a more down to earth way that would fit its characters. The obvious inspiration for Mississippi Grind would be Robert Altman's California Split, about a pair of luckless gamblers (one of Altman's undeniable masterpieces) – although the film feels like any number of other films as well. The additional layer of style would have helped the film in another way as well – it may distract you from the fact that the film doesn’t really do anything new or different with its narrative. It expertly recreates the style of 1970s character studies (much more so than say The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg, a direct remake), but one small twist aside, there isn’t much new here.

The film stars Ben Mendelsohn as Gerry – an office drone from the Midwest, who spends his nights in depressing casinos playing poker. It’s at one of these games where he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) - also a professional gambler, but one who is more of a drifter – never staying in one place for very long. Gerry and Curtis are opposites – Gerry is the type of anonymous, quiet guy that no one much notices or pays attention to. Curtis is the type of guy who walks into a room, and everyone stops – he is outspoken and charming – easily the flashiest guy in these sad little card games. The two of them hit it off somewhat – and soon Curtis is telling Gerry about a high stakes poker game in New Orleans – and Gerry has somehow convinced him that a road trip there is in order, even if neither of them has the money to enter.

You probably know where Mississippi Grind is going, and for the most part you are right. There is somewhat of a role reversal than what we expect between Gerry and Curtis however. You would expect the younger, flashier guy to be the problem gambler – the one in danger of doing something stupid. But that isn’t Curtis – he finds it easy to walk away before his losses get too deep, to always leave himself a cushion. He is, for the most part, sensible. It’s Gerry, the quiet one, who has really spiraled out of control - something that Curtis only gradually realizes. We know more than Curtis does – but not until a visit to his ex-wife’s (Robin Weigert) do we realize how far gone he is (he leaves without seeing his daughter – who he hasn’t seen in a while, because everything in his life that isn’t gambling doesn’t matter).

The two lead  performances in the movie are excellent, Reynolds, who  has done some interesting work in smaller movies as of late, uses his movie star charm here to be sure, but mutes it a little bit – brings it down to earth to be normal guy cool, not movie star cool. It is the always great Mendelsohn who is the real star though. One of the best character actors in the world right now, Mendelsohn has been given a lead role here, and runs with it. It is a quiet role, an understated one – but one that gives him a chance to do some terrific work. He doesn’t make a show of his slow implosion, but plays it straight.

Does the ending of Mississippi Grind actually work? I don’t really think so. It seems to go against everything that went before it – giving these characters perhaps more hope than they deserve (Altman wouldn’t have done that). But for the most part the film works. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – whose debut film together, Half Nelson, was an even better 1970s throwback, know what they’re doing here, and have a made a quiet, understated film. It may not be overly original – but it doesn’t have to be to work.

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