“Mississippi Grind,” written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is a buddy flick and road movie about two guys who meet each other at a poker table at a casino in Dubuque, Iowa. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) befriends Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a mysterious and charismatic man who shows up to play in a random nightly low-stakes tournament in the middle of Iowa. Curtis regales the table with stories about the enigmatic Tony Roundtree, who runs a big high-stakes game in New Orleans with a $25,000 buy-in. While drinking together at a dive bar, Gerry remarks how he was unable to get a read on Curtis, but Curtis explains that he doesn't have any tells because he doesn't care about winning.
Curtis is only passing through and headed to New Orleans, but on his last day in Iowa, the two gamble on greyhounds at the local dog track. Gerry is convinced that Curtis is a good luck charm and decides to ditch his job as a real estate agent and join Curtis on a road trip/gambling binge down the Mississippi River that takes them to St. Louis, Memphis, Tunica, and eventually New Orleans. Gerry wants to play in Tony Roundtree's game but he's broke and needs to build up a bankroll. Curtis agrees to stake him $2,000 and they hit the road.
Gerry is a better than average poker player, but he's your typical unlucky gambler who's a magnet for bad beats. Gerry lost so much money that he's desperately betting on sports and -EV pit games. As Gerry sinks deeper and deeper into debt (including owing a sizable amount to a loanshark/soccer mom played by Alfre Woodward), he's stuck so much his only option is to continue gambling.
I have problems with money.
We've all encountered someone like Gerry and Curtis sitting across from us at the poker table. Curtis is good looking and smarmy, yet you instantly like him. However, you're also a little skeptical and trying to figure out his exact angle. Curtis is a smooth talker and tells engaging stories about his encounters on the road, but is he just a grifter setting up Gerry for a long con?
“Mississippi Grind” flirts with the southern noir genre and 1970s cinema. Slow pacing. Lots of wide exterior shots of the American landscape with evaporating small towns and boarded-up shops. You see common tropes with Gerry as the downtrodden gambler with a broken marriage and the overbearing shame that you can't shake as an absentee father. Gerry strongly feels that Curtis is helping him on his path to redemption, albeit a misguided trip via riverboat casinos, home poker games, OTB parlors, and racetracks.
The two inevitably make it to New Orleans, but they part ways after an incident betting on the ponies at the racetrack. Gerry seeks out Tony Roundtree's big game in hopes of solving his financial woes, while Curtis does a little soul searching in the French Quarter after reuniting with a lady friend.
I won't spoil it for you, but the actual drawn-out ending was something I did not expect. For most of the film, you're skeptical of Gerry and Curtis, who are both full of crap and lie to each other. Only a fool would blindly trust a highly-personable drifter or a desperate gambling addict without any semblance of self-control.
A rainbow frames the film's opening sequence and the first sound you hear is the audio book version of Joe Navarro's “200 Poker Tells” (which Navarro actually recorded specifically for the film). The rainbow theme is present throughout the film. It doesn't take a film scholar to figure out it's a literal metaphor of the common myth about a following a rainbow to its end where you will find a pot of gold. Both troubled men are captivated by what's at the end of their own rainbows. Thrill-seeking Curtis seems to be constantly on the road chasing something unattainable, whereas Gerry is recklessly chasing the gambler's high as his rainbow fades into the dark abyss of debt.
The exquisite soundtrack from “Mississippi Grind” is heavily rooted in Delta Blues. Without a huge budget, the directors somehow managed to find the perfect music with tracks by Memphis Slim, R.L. Burnside, Robert "Wolfman" Belfour, and artists from Fat Possum Records such as Jimmy Lee Harris, Junior Kimbrough, Jimmy Lee Williams and Paul "Wine" Jones.
I loved the cameo by the legendary James Toback, the screenwriter behind the original film “The Gambler” (starring James Caan). Sienna Miller plays a supporting role as a masseuse/part-time call girl.
Sensational acting jobs by both Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, who brought Curtis and Gerry to life instead of letting them become one-dimensional, cliched characters. Reynolds often comes off cheesy in his roles, but he delivered a robust supporting performance. Ben Mendelsohn, an Aussie doing an American accent, disappeared into his role as the proverbial loser and "broke dick." Mendelsohn has an affinity for portraying self-destructive characters with questionable decision-making skills, like his role as the black-sheep brother in the Netflix original series “Bloodlines.”
Is “Mississippi Grind” a poker film? It really only has three poker scenes in the entire film, but it's loaded with other gambling action including dog tracks, horse tracks, blackjack, craps, roulette, slot machines, pool hustling, darts, betting on college basketball, flipping coins, and other prop bets.
IS MISSISSIPPI GRAND THE NEXT GREAT POKER FILM?
“Mississippi Grind” will get lumped into the “poker movie” category, but it is less of a poker movie and more of a gambling film in the vein of Robert Altman's “California Split.” From that perspective, “Mississippi Grind” is believable, which is a testament to the filmmakers desire to shoot on location including Harrah's in New Orleans. Plus, the use of local poker players as extras gave the film a more realistic, gritty vibe.
Overall, despite the thin plotline, “Mississippi Grind” works first and foremost as a regular film. Even if you're not privy to insider knowledge of the poker world or gambling industry, “Mississippi Grind” does an effective job telling a compelling story about two flawed people trying their best to get through the grind of each day.
Watch the trailer here: