Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden don’t work within genres as much as they wander around inside them. Their Half Nelson took on the inspirational-teacher film, while Sugar had a darker, more realistic perspective on the prototypical sports movie. Repeatedly, the filmmaking duo utilize the tenets of a genre but mostly focus on their characters’ specific desires, opening themselves up to criticism that their movies are too meandering for their own good. But oftentimes, those laid-back, intimate observations are where the most interesting things happen.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Fleck and Boden have finally gotten around to making a Robert Altman film. Altman, of course, was the king of the revisionist genre movie, and Fleck and Boden have taken his underrated 1974 gem California Split as their guide for Mississippi Grind, a low-key but affecting story about two gamblers on a car trip. To be sure, this terrain—addiction, the road movie, the buildup to the big competition—has been explored plenty by other filmmakers. And, yet, moment to moment, Mississippi Grind digs into you.
As the movie begins, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) and Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) are just meeting. Playing poker in a rinky-dink establishment in Dubuque, Iowa, they sense a connection—a shared understanding—that separates them from the other players at the table. We immediately pick up on a self-destructive streak in Gerry—his ragged look and nervous manner are his tells—while Curtis comes across as more polished and gregarious, but he carries an edgy energy that makes it hard to know what he’s hiding.
Hitting it off, the two men drink and gamble and bond over the next few days—and that’s when Gerry hits upon an idea. Needing a large score to pay off considerable debts—Alfre Woodard is terrific in a cameo playing a representative of the organizations that want their money, or else—Gerry persuades Curtis to accompany him on a road trip to a major poker game in New Orleans, telling the younger man that’s he’s Gerry’s good-luck charm. Curtis, who seems to spend his life drifting from one locale to another without much of an agenda, accepts the invitation—he’s drawn to Gerry’s determination but also his desperation to get out of this hole.
From its opening scenes, Mississippi Grind reveals its debt to California Split—Curtis is positioned as the supremely cool Elliott Gould character, while Gerry is more like George Segal’s floundering addict—but as the film rolls along, we recognize that Fleck and Boden aren’t doing a straight homage. Rather, Mississippi Grind possesses the wonderful hangout quality of plenty of great 1970s films such as Five Easy Pieces, where the journey is almost more important than the destination.
On their stops before New Orleans—to St. Louis for Curtis to see his on-again/off-again girlfriend (Sienna Miller), to Little Rock for Gerry to confront his ex-wife (Robin Weigert)—these two men gamble, needing to raise $25,000 to pay the entrance fee for the New Orleans game. (Actually, only Gerry gambles—Curtis, who insists that his secret weapon at the card table is that he doesn’t care about losing, merely serves as Gerry’s cheerleader.) And along the way, we get to know them. Gerry, it turns out, is an even sadder case than we first realized. As for Curtis, his chiseled good looks seem to be masking some great disappointment, although we’re not sure what. Just as importantly, the people around our antiheroes reveal themselves. The world of Mississippi Grind is populated with—there’s no polite way to say it—the losers in life. Prostitutes, singers in trashy bars, ex-spouses who just want to put the past behind them, guys who think nothing of wasting a whole day alone at the track: Fleck and Boden have a lot of compassion for these lost souls, but they’re clear-eyed about the stench of sadness that hovers around these individuals. (Tellingly, there also seems to be an emptiness to all the working-class cities Gerry and Curtis visit, as if everyone has moved on to better, more prosperous lives.)
Since breaking out internationally with 2010’s Animal Kingdom, Australian actor Mendelsohn has done strong work in American films such as The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines. But he’s simply stunning as Gerry. We’ve all seen plenty of films about inveterate gamblers—they’re as helpless as alcoholics and drug addicts—but Mendelsohn externalizes all of Gerry’s misery and craving without making a big show of it. Rarely has someone on screen seemed like they were drowning in front of our eyes as powerfully as Gerry does, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. At one point, Gerry confesses that he’s a bad person, and while we can’t disagree, we feel for this poor bastard. Maybe he’s not really bad—he’s just terribly, impossibly, painfully weak.
As Mendelsohn’s partner, Reynolds does fine work playing a charming bon vivant whose act is starting to wear thin, even for himself. If Gerry has a pronounced gambling problem, Curtis is more mysterious: Being around cards and racetracks seems to be some sort of escape for the younger, more suave man. But an escape from what? Mississippi Grind eventually provides an answer, but not entirely, and Reynolds lets Curtis’s enigmatic nature tease us all the way through the final frame.
It has to be said that Mississippi Grind can be far too lackadaisical, especially in a protracted final sequence in New Orleans where Fleck and Boden struggle to find the proper sendoff for their characters. And likewise, Mississippi Grind can fall victim to the clichés of the road movie and the gambling film. As always with these directors, they’re trying to carve out their little space in genres we know backwards and forwards. But that sense of familiarity sometimes is this film’s asset: There’s something depressingly predictable about Gerry and Curtis, well-meaning gents who can’t stop screwing up. If their lives were more original, they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in.
Directors: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Writers: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Robin Weigert
Release Date: Premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.