When their eyes first meet, there’s an immediate spark, or perhaps a shared recognition. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) sells houses, but he’s not particularly good at it, mostly because he doesn’t care at all about his job, and only gets excited about the next time he can gamble. Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) is a little harder to read: He’s a backslapping, charismatic guy who will talk your ear off with his colorful stories of people he’s met around the Midwest at the poker places and dive bars he frequents. But when they meet in some shitty card game in middle-of-nowhere Iowa, they seem to understand almost immediately that they’re oddballs in the exact same way. They were meant to be together.
Mississippi Grind isn’t a love story—Gerry and Curtis are both haunted by memories of women from their past—but it is a movie about soul mates. There are plenty of films about male bonding, road trips, and/or gambling addiction, but this one, directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar), feels special. Sure, it’s somewhat conventional in its design, and its characters aren’t dazzlingly original. But this comedy-drama is so lived-in, so attuned to the way Gerry and Curtis have chosen to spend their time on Earth, that it’s really quite lovely. You walk away feeling like you’ve experienced something honest, but also unfinished in the best possible way. As the film unfolds, it’s unclear what will become of these two. And yet, you sorta feel like you know anyway.
Heavily reminiscent of California Split, Robert Altman’s 1974 film starring George Segal and Elliott Gould as rascally gambling buddies, Mississippi Grind introduces us to Gerry and Curtis during that initial card game, and then lets them take over. I’ve seen this movie twice now, and the second time, I was curious to dissect the characters’ rapport: What made it so natural and effortless? The trick seems to be that the directors catch them in mid-conversation, not worrying if we can always hear everything Mendelsohn and Reynolds say to each other, or if we understand what they’re going on about. Altman used to do a similar technique with overlapping dialogue that was occasionally unintelligible, but Mississippi Grind isn’t quite like that: It’s just that Fleck and Boden want Gerry and Curtis to exist in their universe, rather than forcing them to explain it to us. And so the unhurried rhythms here are entirely in keeping with characters who are permanently drifting—through relationships, from city to city, from poker spot to poker spot.
There is a plot to Mississippi Grind, but it’s mostly an excuse to establish the film’s hangout vibe. Gerry, who owes a lot of money to a lot of people (personified by Alfre Woodard, who’s terrific in a one-scene cameo), is a superstitious cat and comes to believe that Curtis is his gambling good-luck charm. He convinces Curtis—who seems mostly interested in compiling new real-life stories he can tell to new strangers in new bars—to accompany him to a high-stakes game in New Orleans, where he’s hoping to earn enough to pay off his debts. Curtis likes the guy, and so they take a road trip together in Gerry’s car, stopping at different gambling spots along the way so that they can win the $25,000 needed to buy into the New Orleans game. It’s a sign of Gerry’s desperation—and clear gambling problem—that before he can even gamble away what little money he has in New Orleans, he has to gamble well enough beforehand to even earn the right to blow it all.
From that description, you imagine you’ve seen Mississippi Grind before, and you have. But as with these filmmakers’ previous movies, the details are what matter here, the way that their story’s odd contours keep messing with the genre’s familiarity. Mostly, they rely on their two stars, who are excellent together.
Ever since the longtime Australian actor’s Hollywood breakthrough in the 2010 Sundance hit Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has been working consistently in studio films and, more recently, on the acclaimed Netflix series Bloodline. He’s remarkable as Gerry, letting every ounce of vulnerability, self-loathing and itchy panic pour out of him. Mississippi Grind is a story about addiction, but Mendelsohn humanizes a movie-of-the-week trope, presenting Gerry as a perpetually frumpy, frazzled loser who can easily justify his latest pathetic vision of glory. (Early on, he sees a rainbow in Iowa; convinced it’s some sort of sign, he will seek out anything rainbow-related the rest of the film to rationalize his potentially ruinous trip to New Orleans.) Mendelsohn doesn’t ask for our pity—Gerry knows deep down that he’s nothing but trouble—and that’s what makes the performance so remarkable: It’s pure and nonjudgmental, and therefore heartbreaking.
As for Reynolds, this provides him with the sort of role that convinces die-hard fans like myself that we’re right to keep the faith. There’s no question he’s had a spotty career, misfires like Green Lantern and Self/Less butting up against stronger performances in little-known, imperfect films like Buried, The Voices, and The Nines. Because of his hunky appeal, Reynolds has to fight a perception that he’s just a pretty boy—a good guy lacking in depth—and so it’s kinda perfect how well the public’s image of him plays into his portrayal of Curtis.
Although it’s never spelled out what brought Curtis to this nomadic lifestyle—he’ll change the subject or try for a laugh when his past is brought up—we get the sense that there’s something darker or sadder going on behind his chummy demeanor. His lady-killing charm feels like a feint, a way for him to ignore whatever is eating him up, just like when he insists to Gerry early on that his secret to being a good gambler is that he doesn’t care if he wins. With Sienna Miller playing a former (and possibly future) lover, Curtis may be less outwardly troubled than Gerry, but there are demons there as well, and while Mendelsohn falls apart more visibly, Reynolds is superb at conveying a smiling, slow-motion kind of melancholy.
A minor-key story about some minor-key guys, Mississippi Grind never reaches for greatness in an obvious way—it’s content to engagingly amble from city to city before the guys eventually get to New Orleans. Movies about ne’er-do-wells are a dime a dozen, and the film can’t completely shake the fact that it’s part of a well-worn tradition. (Even Mississippi Grind’s conscious channeling of 1970s Hollywood’s outsider spirit can feel a touch mannered at times.) But within that familiarity, there’s some really beautiful, modest observations being made here: about male friendships, about the self-fulfilling prophecy of loserdom, about the realities of feeling like an oddball. A modest movie, definitely, but one whose resonance is surprisingly potent.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.