Melbourne International Film Festival Review: Mississippi Grind (USA, 2015)

Mississippi Grind commences with a fixed camera shot of a pastoral landscape, a glorious rainbow stretches across the horizon in the background. Yet, when Ben Mendelsohn’s Gerry remarks on the spectacle with wonder around a local casino poker table later that evening, he is seemingly the only player to have witnessed it.

At least, he is the only one to have attributed any significance to it. That is, until Gerry runs into one of the players, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) – a fast-talking charmer from out of town – for a second time later in the evening. In the shadowy confines of a bar that looks like any other bar, in a town that looks like any other town, Curtis is one-of-a-kind. And he wants to know whether Gerry saw the rainbow.

Written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Mississippi Grind is the story of the relationship that develops between Curtis and Gerry – two men with seemingly little in common other than fancying a flutter. In Gerry’s case, clearly a little too much. His craggy face betrays a failed marriage, a drinking problem and mounting gambling debts. In contrast, the younger Curtis seems to be out in front of his debts, always knowing when, in his words, it’s ‘Machu Pichu time’ (in other words, time to fold a hand and hit the road). As the pair set off on a spontaneous trip south to New

Orleans with the aim of winning big and erasing Gerry’s debts, there is an initial sense that Curtis’ confidence may rub off on Gerry. However, a combination of bad beats and bad bets quickly imperils the plan.

Fleck and Boden’s film is an unlikely sort of bromance cum road movie. Its greatest strength is the nuanced depiction of Gerry and Curtis. The ambiguities of each man and their relationship – as neither wholly good, nor wholly bad – are astutely observed. In addition, as the extent of the thrall that gambling holds over Curtis becomes clearer, his fledgling friendship with Gerry begins to make much more sense. These men both find significance not only in rainbows, but in the outcome of a coin toss, in whether the next guy out of the gents at the dish-lickers’ meet is wearing glasses. When their numbers come up, it’s exhilarating fun. But, as the saying goes, it’s all good fun until someone loses a few thousand dollars. And a few thousand dollars more.

Mendelsohn and Reynolds give excellent performances, and there are lovely turns from various others along the road. Washed out colours and stills of each town on the way to New Orleans contribute to a pervading sense of stagnation, of a road movie in which the wheels are frequently spinning. Along similar lines, a delightfully eclectic soundtrack (including wryly humourous excerpts from Joe Navarro’s 200 Poker Tells) evokes nostalgia; a longing for days when the American Dream seemed less like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Ultimately, the fascination of Mississippi Grind lies in answering the question of whether co-dependency or camaraderie will emerge triumphant in Curtis and Gerry’s friendship. It is a story of two men, each recognising his own weakness in the other, and deciding to roll the dice regardless.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mississipi Grind screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival 2015. More details can be found HERE