Allow me a quick anecdote. During one of my handful of trips to Las Vegas in my sprightly days, my friends and I were walking through the casino early in the morning, around 10am or so. Often having more fun doing the “tourist thing” (which this time I recall seemed to involve Star Trek exhibits at another hotel) than outright gambling, the casinos sat eerily quiet. My attention was soon caught by one man, haggard and impatient, playing at the craps table. His body language and general disheveled appearance told me he’d been at it for awhile and not doing very well, carrying an air of desperation and muted acceptance.
Now, I don’t know a single thing about this man beyond that ten second observation but it’s become the indelible image I have of Vegas, and one only fortified by Hollywood’s penchant for spotlighting the be-trodden, addictive and salty aspect of the city (and gambling in general).
That image isn’t likely to change with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, which, although doesn’t take place in Las Vegas, captures the same rootless anxiety of a gambler and his go-for-broke attitude of “we can’t lose” right before he might lose it all. This time, the locale is back room gambling dens, dog tracks and riverboat casinos interspersed between Iowa and New Orleans in which Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) have designated as their dream trip to riches.
But they weren’t always friends. After meeting at a Texas hold-em poker game, dashing and extroverted Curtis (Reynolds) meets Gerry and realizes he has something he doesn’t- the spirit of a true gambler. Agreeing to back Gerry with a few thousand dollars, the two embark on their adventure with stops in St. Louis along the way where Curtis re-connects with old flame and working girl Simone (Sienna Miller).
As the duo inch closer to New Orleans and their envisioned utopia of magical riches, Mississippi Grind settles into a somber character study, punctuated by moments of masochistic guilt (as all great gambling films often do) and half-hearted requiems on life, such as when Gerry attempts to settle the ill feelings with his estranged wife (Robin Weigert) and ends up making things worse.
Likewise, Curtis, played by Reynolds with an ingratiating ease, is the more interesting of the men as his motives remain oblique and shadowy. Is he a statistical gambler who really believes in Gerry’s seemingly golden gambling hand? Or are his intentions murky and suspect? Regardless, the give and take between the men, both in their conversations and Gerry’s inner battle with not knowing when to stop his gambling habits, slowly emerge as the central tension.
Written and directed by Boden and Fleck, the filmmaking duo have a history of great, complex films such as Sugar, Half Nelson and It’s Kind of A Funny Story. Their characters are often decent people struggling, off-kilter and marginalized. They don’t provide tidy summaries or linear eulogizing, and Mississippi Grind fits nicely into their catalog of scrappy individuals treading rocky pavement. The smoke filled bars, cramped apartments and cheap beer supplied race tracks are nondescript yet highly recognizable aspects of middle America.
And even more recognizable is the ever elusive dreamy reach of Mendelsohn as Gerry, believing that each new roll of the dice or flip of the card will validate his end-of-the-rainbow sojourn to riches. That hope is the flicker that drives Mississippi Grind. Perhaps that guy I saw in that Vegas casino realized his dreams as well.
Mississippi Grind opens in the Dallas Fort-Worth area on Friday, October 2 at Look Cinemas.