Mississippi Grind introduces Gerry, a real estate agent played by Ben Mendelsohn, as he drives his car through Dubuque, Iowa. He listens to a motivational recording offering tips on how to overcome the signs of anxiety, looking wary and defeated. The audio pitchman segues to his next signifier: “Number 13: Sneaking a nose touch.” Immediately, Gerry’s life, as a down-on-his-luck gambler fumbling toward insolvency, comes into relief, as does the gambling movie’s road-tested ability to reveal the fundamental insecurity of a certain breed of male psychology.
Pathetically alive to signs of hope or luck, Gerry runs across two early on in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s feature. The first is a rainbow, stretching across the entire horizon. (Its colors continue to refract in the film’s alluringly shot series of neon-lit dive bars and gambling halls.) The second is Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), the rakish livewire who finds a seat across from Gerry across a Dubuque poker table. Curtis enthusiastically relates a stream of stories with the specious philosophy and questionable veracity of one of Kerouac’s dreamers, but Gerry wagers that this charmer, who also marveled at that rainbow, might be his ticket to glory. After a good night at the races, the pair decide to tour the gambling holes of the Mississippi, all the way to New Orleans. Gerry’s looking to escape secret, massive debts. Curtis professes an upbeat, amorphous, at times inchoate longing for experience.
Mississippi Grind is founded on a nicely threaded synthesis of familiar formulas—part buddy comedy, addiction narrative, road-tripper, and documentary-style portrait of socioeconomic malaise. Despite the film’s relentless familiarity (with its class concerns, dingy poker tables, and notable attention to lounge singers, much of the film is a clear homage to Robert Altman’s great California Split) and aggressively scripted dialogue, Boden and Fleck convey an engagingly low-key atmosphere, pervasive with wayward souls haunted by poor choices. As Gerry and Curtis rove southward, the cast expands to include love interests (Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton) and self-appointed legends (James Toback, as the boss of a secret New Orleans poker haunt), and they all affect a potent disillusion. Mississippi Grind leaves each of them behind to consider how and whether its protagonists can maintain their own illusions.
The film is at its best when its leads are in conversation. In montages and a few nightclub scenes, Boden and Fleck attempt to articulate the social tapestry of cities like St. Louis and Memphis, but the story is too peripatetic for these fleeting stabs at authenticity. Of greater concern is how the writer-directors can’t decide when and how to leave their characters: Mississippi Grind’s final 20 minutes feel like a series of wildly divergent possible endings for Gerry and Curtis, rather than the linear and logical progression of events they’re portrayed to be. The film means to leave us with lots of questions, but it’s already provided too many answers.
There’s little suspense in the screenplay’s seesaw between good and bad fortune, but as the schematics of the genre threaten to lull you into boredom, Mississippi Grind’s leads jolt you to attention. Mendelsohn doesn’t reinvent the luckless addict, but he finds a wealth of nuance in his character’s slouchy posture, vague resentments, and ineffable loneliness. Reynolds, meanwhile, conveys a charisma that’s both undeniable and a little slimy. Curtis lands, simultaneously, as an inveterate liar and an earnest dreamer, carefully positioning himself as an ephemeral presence in the lives of everyone he comes across. Both characters specialize in disappointing their loved ones, but Gerry and Curtis never seem to truly disappoint one another. Like California Split, Mississippi Grind sketches a friendship that feels deep and true, despite its enduringly precarious undertow.