This 2015 road movie stars Rogue One‘s Ben Mendelsohn in a much more down-to-earth role as down-and-out gambler Gerry, who befriends the slightly younger Curtis, played by Ryan Reynolds; he’s Hollywood’s own gambler’s fallacy: bet on him enough times and eventually he’ll make them some money.
Gambling and road tripping are themes well-trodden in American cinema, and Mississippi Grind sensibly focuses less on poker and more on the relationship between the two men; both lonely, both liars. Mendelsohn is in his element as degenerate Gerry, while Reynolds goes from Deadpool to deadbeat as Curtis, who talks almost exclusively in urban legends. Sienna Miller also makes an appearance, almost unrecognisable as (one of) Curtis’ girlfriend(s).
When Gerry invites Curtis on a gambling trip down to Mississippi, he says it’s because Curtis brings him luck, but it’s more likely to do with companionship. Their friendship is genuinely touching, and it’s nice to see the co-stars of The Place Beyond the Pines reunited; I know that was Ryan Gosling, not Reynolds, but the two are becoming virtually indistinguishable.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck direct with a cool, laid-back vibe that feels like a 1970s picture (see also the poster); somewhere between Midnight Cowboy and Midnight Run. The recurring references to rainbows, several unlikely coincidences and an even less likely ending suggest that this is not a film to be taken literally. It has a more mythic quality, using the road as a liminal, almost purgatorial space, with an underlying tone of self-destructive existentialism. These sad characters aren’t chasing the American dream so much as trying to escape it.
Boden and Fleck also imbue the film with a great sense of place, coolly guiding us through neon-lit dives and soulless casinos. In Memphis, we get establishing shots of the Stax Museum and Sun Studio, while constant blues music plays an important role in invoking not only emotion, but also a part of America that’s going nowhere fast.
A folkloric tale of gambling, life on the road and dingy blues bars, Mississippi Grind has the feel and content of a Grateful Dead concert circa 1973, except, you know, shorter. This may not be the freshest drama out there, but it’s well worth a roll of the dice.