‘Mississippi Grind’ and the Irresistible Allure of Gambling Movies

There are few places on this earth as depressing as a casino. The lighting is artificial, the dings are mirthless, the place smells like an ashtray (even the ones you can’t smoke in), and nobody seems to be having a very good time. Movies will occasionally present us with characters who enjoy their time there, who come to casinos to win money and do so (Rain Man leaps to mind), but most of the time, they’re preoccupied with the losers, who come there to win money, fail to do so, and keep coming back anyway. Such souls were the subjects of great ‘70s dramas like The Gambler and California Split, or more recent efforts like Owning Mahowny and The Cooler. And two of them are the center of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s new drama Mississippi Grind, which positions itself as an heir to those pictures, and pretty much pulls it off.

Mississippi Grind‘s characters meet around a poker table, to a soundtrack of Altmanesque half-heard chatter, slot machine bells, and cards hitting felt. Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) walks in with a grin and a wink that almost conveys confidence; he’s a chatty Cathy at the table, telling stories and buying drinks, later confessing that he doesn’t play to win, but merely because “I like people.”

Ryan Reynolds in "Mississippi Grind"

At the other end of the table is Gerry (Ben Medelsohn), whose every exterior attribute conveys exactly how busted out he is. He owes a lot of money, all over town and to a lot of people, but mostly to Sam (Alfre Woodard), who seems at first like some kind of family friend, offering him to buy him a meal before getting down to brass tacks: “Don’t make me ask, Gerry.” (Woodard’s surface kindness and the quiet impatience underneath is a great, sideways take on a stock character in stories like these.) But somehow, when Curtis is around, Gerry wins — or, more likely, he convinces himself of that connection — so he comes up with a proposal: they’ll work games from his Iowa home base down the Missisippi, accumulating enough cash to buy in to a big-money game in New Orleans. That, he tells his new friend, is where he’ll get right again.

When Curtis asks how much he owes, Gerry answers simply: “A lot.” Much of his dialogue is like that, just a few words, but Mendelsohn performs miracles with such tiny lines as “A lot” or “She’s six” or “It stings a little bit”; he fills them with so much vocal texture it can knock the wind out of you, and in doing so, he tells all the hard-luck backstory we need. It also makes the actors a good team, Mendelsohn’s wallflower murmuring an effective counterbalance to Reynolds the charismatic gabber.

Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn in "Mississippi Grind"

And their interplay is, in many ways, what the movie is about — much as California Split was much more about Elliot Gould and George Segal hanging out than it was about how well (or, even, if) they played. Its other key topic (as in The Gambler, both the 1974 original and last year’s remake) is the compulsion/addiction that those softer flicks (the otherwise great Rounders being a prime example) tend to soft-peddle. I’m reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s magnificently contained performance in the overlooked Mahowny; when he’s sitting at the tables gambling away everything he has and everything he’s embezzled, whether he’s winning or losing, there’s never any joy on his face. It’s just something he has to do.

For much of its running time, Mississippi Grind isn’t even all that interested in how well Gerry does; early on, Curtis tells him, “I don’t care about winning, I just like to play,” and the picture follows much of that lead. Writer/directors Boden and Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) have always had a knack for inhabiting their locations rather than merely shooting in them, and this is a movie that knows these taverns and tap rooms, these riverboats and pool halls, and is just as interested in hanging out there, reveling in their roll-with-it soundtrack, than in moving the story along in any particular hurry.

Such looseness can only last so long, of course; it’s not the ‘70s anymore, and such pictures now must arrive at a destination and something resembling a payoff. Mississippi Grind‘s is exciting, as far as it goes, but doesn’t much match the spirit of what’s come before. Until then, however, this is a loose, funky character study of two guys who can only frame their station as “can’t win” and “can’t lose,” and can’t really imagine a life that’s anywhere in between.

Mississippi Grind is out Friday in limited release.