It’s been a while since we’ve caught Ryan Reynolds in a movie and since Mississippi Grind is the latest work by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, we thought why not? Boden and Fleck’s Half-Nelson (2006) focused on a young middle-school history teacher, who was also a coke addict. Though intelligent and grimly gutsy, it offered a ray of hope at the end. Mississippi Grind follows the journey of two small-time gamblers as they navigate the middle, looking to catch a break.
|Reynolds and Mendelsohn|
Ryan Reynolds as Curtis, the charming, younger “tall leprechaun,” and Gerry, the older, desperately addicted hangdog played by Ben Mendelsohn, plan to enter a high stakes poker game in New Orleans. Curtis states a refrain about the journey, rather than the destination – he’s a roamer who can no more connect or settle down than Gerry can guarantee a winning streak – and that sets the tone for the story. It’s a buddy movie that owes a lot to Altman’s California Split (1974), but Gerry is more frightening than those earlier characters because he seems like so many middle-class Americans that have fallen over the economic edge in a system set up for others. Curtis seems like a number of lucky people who decide to try self-destruction as a way to feel something. Both actors are unassumingly sensational: Mendelsohn’s skin tone and wrinkles change according to his level of despair and Reynolds’ seductive eyes and elegant scruff can’t overcome his willed anomie.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh’s clear, hand-held approach that can see every speck of dirt in a sylvan setting goes for broke here. A number of American landmarks are rendered as simultaneously tacky and flat. The various performers look exactly like people I’ve seen in regional casinos and I’ve wondered about their stories as I’ve watched them blanking out in front of video screens and hanging on the next dealt card. I miss seeing what used to be the inevitable older woman with an oxygen tank that sat smoking automatically. The lack of smoking is a major difference since the Altman movie as is the reduced liquor intake. Do wine and beer drinkers gamble like this?
I wondered who was Curtis’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Simone before remembering Sienna Miller was in the credits. I don’t know if Miller will be a star because she vanishes as a personality into the parts she plays. She never looks nor moves nor sounds the same from role to role. Simone sees through Curtis, but doesn’t know how to reach him. Analeigh Tipton plays Vanessa, the younger escort, and her incredible eyes betray that she sees all, but gets only part of it. There’s a bit with a magic trick that’s both darling and sad. Alfre Woodard has one scene with Mendelsohn as his loan shark and she conveys the woman’s personal and professional existence with warmth and menace; together, they seem to be in the middle of a long-term dance in which they keep stumbling over each other’s feet. Why do loan sharks make bets on losers? What do they get out of it? Robin Weigert pierces as Gerry’s ex-wife that he visits and tries to betray again. Singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman shows up for a small, profound scene and matches up perfectly with Reynolds.
Neil thought it was too long. It meanders and the dialogue has a looseness that feels natural – actually, it’s like one of Cassavettes’ color movies like Husbands (1970), though not as indulgent. I thought the last ten minutes were unnecessary, though they offer greater hope than if they were cut. I found the movie indelible, but I don’t know if Reynolds’ name can attract enough attention. It would be a shame if this were overlooked during awards season, but it doesn’t shout out for acclaim.