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[Review] – ‘Mississippi Grind’


Release Date: 13 August 2015 [USA]
Director: Anna Boden - Ryan Fleck
Writer: Anna Boden - Ryan Fleck
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn - Ryan Reynolds - Yvonne Landry

Posted October 14, 2015 by

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What happens when a road movie leaves the road?

Mississippi Grind, the latest movie from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, begins so well that you get excited about where this buddy-gambler, road movie might take you. For about the first hour, it follows its two main characters on a trip down the Mississippi, from Dubuque, through St. Louis, Memphis, and Jackson before getting to its nirvana in New Orleans. Then the journey and, to a large extent, the movie, both stop.

We have seen this kind of story before. A down-on-his-luck gambler (is there any other kind in movies?) meets up with a mysterious stranger who agrees to partially stake him so that he can play in a big money house game down in the Big Easy. They will need to pick up the rest of the buy-in as they journey through the heart of America. We root for the shaggy hero. We wonder about this stranger’s intentions. They bond and they argue and ultimately they win or lose together.

The scenes which show their meeting around a Hold ‘Em game in Dubuque are beautifully written and acted. Ben Mendelsohn, who has done such good supporting character work in so many movies, gives the gambler Gerry just enough charm to make him tolerable without sacrificing the decaying morality induced by years and years of addiction. It is a performance reminiscent of Robert Forster in Jackie Brown and Chris Cooper in Lone Star, in which long-time supporting actors were allowed to dig into a meaty lead role for a change. And as his mysterious lucky charm, Curtis, Ryan Reynolds has never been better. I admit I have never been a Reynolds fan, and I had to remind myself throughout that this charismatic puzzle was in fact Hal Jordan himself.

As they move south, Boden and Fleck give us little glimpses of the landmarks that make up the cities they visit. We get a brief tour, usually accompanied by some acoustic blues. Though we see the occasional tourist spot, they are more interested in the small, off-the-beaten-path spots. My favorite – Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a St. Louis tradition.

Gerry and Curtis are kind of off-the-beaten-path themselves. We may have seen their types before, but there is enough quirk and charm to keep this journey fresh. There are some romantic interests in St. Louis. Gerry will suffer a classic bad beat in Memphis. And as pressure builds, they will argue some and force each other to face some unpleasant realities.

And then, they get to New Orleans. Actually, things begin to turn dire in Jackson just before they reach the end of the road, so that by the time they actually get to the big game in New Orleans, Gerry and Curtis are on the outs. Much to the filmmakers’ credit, the big game does nothing to mend the relationship. But this big game, (featuring a rather subdued James Toback, screenwriter extraordinaire) – toward which the first hour and change have been pointing, comes and goes rather quickly, and we still have a fair amount of movie left. That’s a hard thing to pull off. Not impossible. But hard. If we have been waiting for something dramatic to happen at the end of a journey, and something dramatic does not in fact happen, a storyteller had better have something even better up his sleeve to sub in.

Boden and Fleck don’t have it. What they have is a series of black-out scenes, a number of which could have been the end of the story. The lines start to get labored – you can see the words on the page of a screenplay. Some of it is clever, some of it is entertaining. But none of it is revelatory. If anything, the cryptic Curtis grows more and more indecipherable as we learn more about him. And Gerry does what all gamblers do. He keeps gambling until he either hits it big or dies trying. There are clearly suggestions of characters changing, but those changes (or failures to change) remain so buried that it becomes a chore to interpret. That might not be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the plot in this final section begins to meander. It actually gets a little boring in the last half hour. There is a great soundtrack and lots of atmospheric photography to keep hope alive, but the story just can’t bring it home.

One of those many meandering scenes in New Orleans involves Curtis wandering into a bar as a woman is singing. We will learn another fact about Curtis in this scene, though as I have suggested, the fact doesn’t really shed any more light on who he is. As the woman sings her bluesy folk tune about hard-worn truth, I was reminded of all the other movies that have ended recently with onscreen singers performing similarly meaningful songs. Movies like Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman’s Dolares de arena, Francois Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, and most notably, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix. Each of those movies used its song as an emotional capstone to help conclude a journey. In Mississippi Grind, the song is just another in a series of long slow fade outs, its meaning disappearing into the next sequence before the guitar strings have stopped vibrating. Boden and Fleck might have been wise to end their story there.

Better yet, they should have never let it leave the road.


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Jonathan Eig
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