Monday 3 July 2017

Movie Review: Mississippi Grind (2015)

A road movie delving into the psyche of two gamblers, Mississippi Grind is a study of addiction as a way of life.

In Dubuque, Iowa, stressed-out gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) meets lighthearted professional gambler Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) at the poker table, and the two men strike a friendship. Curtis is an expert at darts, will gamble on anything, has a good natured winning attitude and adopts "the journey is the destination" as his mantra. Always on the move, he wins more often than he loses but does not care either way. Gerry is a divorced real estate agent, deep in debt, does not know enough to quit when he's ahead and is resorting to petty theft to feed his gambling habit.

Gerry decides that Curtis is his lucky charm and the two men team up on a road trip with a big stakes poker game in New Orleans as the ultimate destination. Curtis introduces Gerry to his friends, hookers Simone (Sienna Miller) and Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton). On the trip Gerry encounters wins and losses, and Curtis learns more about himself and continuously weighs how far he can tolerate the erratic behaviour of his deeply troubled new friend.

Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Mississippi Grind is an unofficial remake of 1974's California Split. A two-person character study, the film draws out the contrasts between two men with the same habit but completely different attitudes. Less messy and more focused in comparison to the Robert Altman film, Mississippi Grind sharply defines two well-rounded men within a classic road trip format but nevertheless suffers from a lack of originality.

The strength of the film resides in teasing out the dramatically different consequences of the same obsession. Gerry's life is on a downward spiral. He may not know it, but gambling has taken over his life, his relationships and of course his finances. He will experience some wins but no longer has control over what it takes to actually win at life, and every big windfall is an overture for a bigger loss.

Curtis is equally living the life of a gambler, but has his immediate priorities balanced. His loose attitude exudes the confidence to know when to stop, and his real enjoyment comes from befriending different people. Curtis' journey is to ask the question about the meaning of it all, and whether his carefree on-the-move lifestyle is sacrificing long term happiness for short term thrills.

Ben Mendelsohn is a revelation, injecting the film with the painful needle of potential going to waste. With unblinking intensity Mendelsohn finds the agony of a man living a life he no longer commands. He reaches a devastating depth in a sequence at the home of his ex-wife, the gambler confronting all that he has lost and still unable to stop inflicting more misery upon himself. Ryan Reynolds is more emotive than usual, Curtis a perfect fit for Reynold's often breezy screen persona.

Boden and Fleck accompany the two men through the good and the bad, alternating scenes of gambling (at the poker table, at the track, wherever there is a bet to be made) with character depth sequences providing insight into the power of addiction. Gerry's agony increases the longer he is away from a bet; Curtis' sense of unease increases whenever he is in the same place for too long. Their interests converge for the one trip that could change everything or nothing.

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