Gambling is an interesting addiction and one that can be portrayed with a certain amount of glamour on screen. Unlike drug addicts or alcoholics, gamblers are not ingesting anything in their bodies, but are getting their rush from betting their hard-earned money on a random roll of the dice. For some people it’s all about winning, while some get their rush by the simple act of betting. ‘Mississippi Grind,’ written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, features two such characters who, in a way, decide to gamble on each other during a road trip.
Long-time supporting actor Ben Mendelsohn has the starring role of Gerry, a real estate agent in Dubuque, Iowa, who is up to his eyeballs in debt and is not having much luck at work, yet regularly goes to the casinos in the hope of changing his luck. One night, luck comes in the form of Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a happy-go-lucky traveler who entertains fellow gamblers with wild stories from his time on the road. Curtis makes a decent amount of money at the poker tables, but while sharing drinks with Gerry he claims he doesn’t care about winning or losing. Given the age difference between the two men and how blasé Curtis is about money, Gerry is clearly envious of this stranger’s life.
However after being stabbed in a parking lot after a good night of betting, Gerry comes to the conclusion he does not have to be Curtis, but just be near him. Since he gets lucky at the tables whenever Gerry is there and unlucky the minute he leaves, Curtis believes Gerry is the modern day equivalent of a leprechaun and possibly the answer to all his troubles. His proposition is for the two of them to hit the road and drive down the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans for a high-stake poker game Curtis mentioned, and make enough money along the way for the $25,000 buy-in. Seeing a kind but desperate man, Curtis agrees to be a walking lucky charm.
Their trip feels like a Blues song come to life. They gamble at riverboat casinos, spend a revelatory night in St. Louis with two prostitutes (Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton), and discuss each of their relationships, or lack thereof, while on the road. Like a good Blues song there is also a certain darkness behind the lyrics, as it becomes clear to Curtis that Gerry has a serious problem when a stop to his ex-wife’s home shows the depths he will sink to in order to get the money he needs. Curtis might be a lucky charm, but it is still up to Gerry to decide how to use that luck and the money he might make by using it.
In an age over-saturated with big-budget spectacle, it is refreshing to see two actors share the screen for what is essentially a character study. With his world-weary face and the surgical look he gives other players during a game, Mendelsohn embodies the gambler who is one day away from either being completely broke or from finally getting that one lucky hand that will redeem him. Reynolds is also great as a man who seemingly has it all, with the freedom to travel wherever he wants and not care about money, but also comes to the sad realization he does not have anyone in his life to go with him on his travels.
Although it is a road trip, ‘Mississippi Grind’ sometimes feels like a play, and a great one at that, with its rich dialogue and focus on two characters who learn from each other during their adventures. It does not glamorize gambling, but it does give you an idea of the rush gamblers might feel when they finally get lucky.
(‘Mississippi Grind’ is now streaming on Netflix.)