Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds
4 (out of 5) Globes
“Mississippi Grind” is a nod to gritty ’70s Hollywood movies, but it’s not mere affectation. It gets something more essential about them. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) aren’t just guys on the skids but the actual losers of society — the forgotten ones who’ve let their vices get the better of them and have no way of climbing to the top. Their sin is gambling (and occasionally hard liquor, and bad food), which they see as their ticket out of the gutter. Thing is, their brand of gambling is all about luck. They figure if they stick at it they’ll eventually hit. But even then they’re so used to their lives of desperation they might never change even if they finally win.
Gerry and Curtis meet-cute at a poker table, but not one of those flashy ones, where everyone’s a card shark. They’re all just like them: impoverished, dirty, slaves to the game, holing down in rotting gambling halls. They decide to team up, treating friendship the same way they treat their habit: as luck, as something that may pay off and, if it doesn’t, to be promptly ditched. If this sounds familiar, it’s because “Mississippi Grind” isn’t just a general ’70s homage. For awhile it’s almost a remake of “California Split,” Robert Altman’s 1974 profile of another set of desperate gamblers. Gerry is, like George Segal’s character there: the quiet sadsack to Curtis, who, like Elliott Gould in “Split,” is a charismatic motormouth, just barely able to obscure his skeeviness through motormouthed charm.
For awhile directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson,” “Sugar,” let’s not talk about their misjudged juvie psych ward dramedy “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”) stay very “Split.” They shoot Altmanesque, their cameras roving about spaces, even refusing to single out their lead actors. Reynolds essentially sneaks into the movie, hovering in the background before the camera notices him. By the half hour mark “Grind” leaves “Split” behind for its own storyline and less Altman-y shooting style. Gerry and Curtis hit the road for that Last Big Score, which quickly starts to look like just their latest of infinite, failed attempts to get out of the game. Boden and Fleck use “Split” to get into this world, and once deep inside they feel comfortable to go their own way.
Curtis seems magnetic and cool, and Reynolds may even seem too handsome to fit into a world of cheap booze, dissolving relationships and unsightly obsessions. But it’s all a front, and it’s clear that pretty-boy face, spackled with a token scab or three, will only get worse. Mendelsohn fits right in. With his nicotine-stained voice, deep, flabby face wrinkles and slovenly, hunchbacked walk, he’s a slightly, ever so slightly, more together version of his blabbering junkie in “Killing Them Softly.” When he makes an unannounced drop in on his ex-wife (Robin Weigert), it’s not cheap backstory, filling us in on details we could have surmised by simply looking at him. As an awkward reunion ends with him rooting through her sock drawer for cash, we learn he’s even worse off than we already assumed, which is saying something.
This all ends on a slightly more upbeat note than “Split,” but even then it understands that winning isn’t a way out. They’re trapped in a lifestyle where the thrill is the unknown, where the drive comes from the game, where what compels them to make crazy bets that occasionally pay off is the same thing that keeps them, more often than not, in the gutter. Even when he can afford lobster, Gerry still feels he deserves a cheeseburger. Boden and Fleck get life on the margins, and if this slither of America is grimier than the ones of a meth-head school teacher (“Half Nelson) or a Dominican baseball player who will probably be ignored by the majors (“Sugar”), it’s still another way of life that has nothing to do with the winners. Understanding that is what makes “Grind” more than just an homage by people who’ve seen too many movies.