By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck know how to wring drama out of working-class ennui, having proven so throughout their entire ouevre, from Half Nelson to Sugar to, more or less, It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
This didn’t look like a particularly rich mental health ward…
Mississippi Grind might sport their most quintessentially blue collar American with blue collar issues yet, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a career gambler and a career loser. When he meets up with a younger gambler (Ryan Reynolds) to mentor (and to bankroll him), he figures he may just have found his lucky charm.
Ben Mendelsohn is a goddam treasure, and his role here is among the best he’s ever delivered on. He’s a not so lovable loser, just a bone-deep one, whose addiction has cost him everything he’s ever had worth keeping. For all that, though, you can’t help rooting for him, somehow, perhaps because no matter who we are we’ve all been losers at some point.
The biggest loser of all being the one who can’t admit that.
Boden, Fleck, and DP Andrij Parekh craft a film of handheld, woozy just-past-magic-hour photography mixed with Scorcese-like pull-ins and off-center closeups in which we can’t quite pin what’s just happened based on Mendelsohn’s quizzical expression. This is just a really well shot and edited piece of work, with a great Mississippi Valley-sourced blues soundtrack to boot.
Reynolds, on as big a winning streak as he’s ever been on in the last year, is quite good as a much more suave counterpoint to Mendelsohn’s grubbiness, as is Analeigh Tipton, all growed up from Crazy, Stupid Love in a small hooker with a heart of gold role. This is Mendelsohn’s film, though, and as simple as the setup is, he delivers.
Writing-wise, though, this is vintage Magic Pixie Dream Reynolds- just what exactly does he see in Mendelsohn, and what is his motivation to stick around? This is billed as two character pieces but is really just one, as the most characterization Reynolds gets are rote mommy problems and a penchant for random crazy actions like betting buff strangers 100 bucks on a pickup basketball game, not bothering to take off his coat, then telling them he doesn’t have any money even though he clearly does, just so he can take a punch to the face, apparently purely for the enjoyment of it. What?
The ending feels unearned and out of step with the rest of the film, but perhaps that’s the point. Less obvious is how Reynolds finds Mendelsohn in the end, or even why he’d want to. It’s really hard to quantify how much of a loser Mendelsohn is, even, and especially, when he’s winning.
You know he’s just gonna blow it in whatever the next poker game down the road is.
Mississippi Grind doesn’t really come together in a plot logic sort of way- the less you think about character motivations, the better- but still ends up being a plenty watchable entry in Boden & Fleck’s gritty humanist oeuvre and a bang-up Ben Mendelsohn showcase.
Mississippi Grind (2015) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever Mendelsohn fucks up
Take a Drink: for brutal stories about the past
Take a Drink: whenever a major character shakes off a major injury like it ain’t no thing
Take a Drink: for every new type of gambling we see
Do a Shot: for that ending