Mississippi Grind is a film that could easily pass by without people taking notice. For the most part it is a quiet film, not necessarily because of volume or action, but because its style is far away from the flashy gambling aesthetic that many films about the subject have. Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson), Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn, A Place Beyond the Pines) is living a solitary existence, kept up by backroom gambling games, small casinos, quiet bars with regulars playing pool and darts, and his empty job showing people around new potential homes. He owes money to people in the local area and is threatened by various independent parties because of it, but continues to live his quiet, impoverished, grinding existence until Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) sits down at the same poker table. He engages the table in stories, confuses Gerry’s readings of him and hands out expensive whiskey. After repeated meetings the two become linked for Gerry by a kind of fate; Curtis will be his lucky charm and they will travel down the Mississippi betting on horses, playing poker and black jack and living on the fringes of the American dream, until they reach a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.
The setup could be hackneyed, a repetition of gambling tropes from past films, and that might be expected from a film with an A-list cast that also includes Sienna Miller. But it sits in a position at the antithesis of that. Shots are long and stay for extended periods within one location, a bar, a small flat, a casino. All the characters, including small side parts, are allowed time to talk on screen. Thin archetypes or unbelievable figures are completely negated, all the characters could be real people, in casinos full of real people that Gerry and Curtis have only happened to come across.
The film expresses a type of realism, one that doesn’t exclude stylisation. Bars, neon, whiskey, diners, green felt tables, poker chips, suits, expensive hotels, private games on boats along the river, these are all there within the film, but they are alongside Gerry’s cheap rundown car, toilets and parking lots of bars in industrial areas, repeating stretches of motorway and passing scenery, used car lots and empty stands at racecourses. The film and its characters are an expression of the ‘deep-south’ and of southern blues; an inevitable sadness stoically bourn. The soundtrack, jazz and blues from the areas they pass through, comes through in the bars and casinos and even the conversation, as one character reminds them of the famous musicians to have come out of the south.
Both Mendelsohn and Reynolds’ performances have the depth and the mishmash ambiguity of traits that make up real people. Both have things that they leave unsaid, lie about, avoid, but both characters are also honest, or are trying to be honest with themselves. One of the themes of the film seems to be trust, and the complexities of it between two men who are used to lying. It is a film about gambling, but not in any overt way. It is not about the games they play but about their mentality, particularly Gerry’s, and his insistence on the elements of fate that link things together and will solve their problems. It is about two characters motivations for continuing with their lives.
As they continue down south, through St. Louis and Memphis, their luck fluctuates and the events of each of their lives effect and are effected by the people they know. There is no overt judgement of them, the reality of their situations are shown and their personalities are allowed to play out in their complexity. Their relationship to the world looks as real as any of the audience’s relationships to their own. Gerry and Curtis are a part of their world, whilst being on its periphery, with a functioning world going on around them. To create the sense of a real living world that two characters are a part of is not an easy effect to achieve when the film focuses almost continuously on both of their characters. But directors Fleck and Boden do this expertly. As the film continues both Curtis and Gerry reveal things about themselves, the events unfolding with an understated tension and suspense, but the film always maintains its realism.
It is a film that people might not readily come across, but one that is successful and entertaining, and it explores something more than two men gambling across the deep south.