It’s a story heard all too often in the gambling realm. A guy has it all — a wife and kid, a good job, and decent money. But once he feels the initial thrill that comes with winning a bet, he falls down the greased slope that leads to rock bottom. This is where we pick up with Ben Mendelsohn’s Gerry in Mississippi Grind, and although his future is predictable for the most part, it’s also one that suckers you into the ride.
Mississippi Grind is the third joint directorial effort from filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story). It begins with an image of the elusive but hard to ignore double rainbow, and the film will not let you forget this metaphor. Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) magically appears at a poker game and perks Gerry up and out of his slump. Suddenly, Gerry’s luck turns around, and he attributes his newfound success to Curtis, who Gerry calls his lucky “leprechaun.” See? There’s that rainbow metaphor again. He’s earned some money, but we soon learn that he’s in some pretty hot water with the local bookies, one of which threatens his cat.
His master plan to make everything right is to road trip it down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, stopping at all the casinos and hot spots along the way before hitting up the high-stakes, high-payoff bids. Curtis is a gambler of a different color. He only settles down when there’s a game to be played, money to be earned, but when there’s not, he’s feeding his wanderlust. It’s unclear at first why he sympathizes with Gerry, but he agrees to join him on this dark road trip of errors.
Ryan Reynolds’ charm is infectious, but it’s the same shade we’re used to — even a bit muted when you think of the extremes to which he can go. Curtis is not enough to lead us on this venture, but Gerry is. Slightly reminiscent of his character in the Netflix series Bloodline, Ben Mendelsohn is the tragic driving force of this movie. And he just so happens to be the man who physically drives the car. Much like his exuberant and wise-cracking counterpart, it takes a while for Gerry to reveal his true nature, but I reveled in watching each layer slowly, satisfyingly peel off to reveal an even more hardcore addict underneath. When I think of this movie, I think of the subtlety in Mendelsohn’s face — the camera close up — when he loses everything on the road. Like a recovering alcoholic who’s been wandering a trail of temptation in a daze, he finally stumbles on that drink he’s been craving but hasn’t touched. In an instant, his face shows the decision he makes to take a deep swig.
He’s the reason why Curtis is going on this ride, and he’s the reason we are, too. Curtis may be able to make the ladies (played by Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton) swoon, but I could only stomach the same routine for so long. When I did reach my limit, it was about halfway through the film, and all of sudden it became a chore to watch. The story splits its time between these two gentlemen, both of whom are exposing themselves more and more. But, if we’re to go back to that double rainbow that is constantly referenced throughout the film, I was twiddling my thumbs for when I’d see either the double rainbow (Curtis and Gerry together) or the initial rainbow (Gerry), but the second one by itself (Curtis) is passable.
Do these two men ever find the pot of gold at the end of these rainbows? It doesn’t really matter. Curtis’ mantra is that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey — and that’s equally true of the film. Even though I could tell where the film was going, it was all about the ride. Although, I’d prefer if this ride was an out-of-control train wreck heading straight for New Orleans. Instead, the actual “trip” part of this film moves at the pace of an inebriated driver who’s incredibly paranoid about who he might run over in his stupor, so he rides the speed limit the entire way.