In “Mississippi Grind,” Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a gambling addict who doesn’t know when to cash his chips in and call it a day; Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) is a flighty traveler who likes to gamble for fun and doesn’t care about winning or losing. United by the appreciation of a rainbow, they develop a great friendship. But Gerry’s dangerous lifestyle begins to catch up with him when his loan shark gets impatient with his lack of payments. Believing that Curtis brings good luck, Gerry asks him to come along on a trip on a gambling tour in Mississippi to pay off his debts.
Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson”) return to Sundance with a road trip that explores the back roads of America and ventures into the dark rooms where high stakes gambling takes place. It soon becomes clear that Gerry is burning out, as he continues to make one bad decision after another, but never arrives any real consequences. The indomitable Curtis continues to enable him even as his friend spirals out of control.
The film benefits from solid performances across the board. Mendelsohn in particular is a delight, imbuing his character with depth as he advances his character’s morally questionable behavior. Ryan Reynolds also delivers a career highlight as the handsome, charismatic Curtis. The chemistry between the pair offers plenty of entertainment value complimented by consistently endearing dialogue. Their relationship maintains constantly shifting dynamics, as we see Reynolds, the younger and livelier character, becoming the straight man trying to keep the older and impulsive Mendelsohn from destroying himself.
But the film never rises to the level of its impressive performances. The plot and the character motivations grow increasingly muddled and inconsistent. By the third act, one has to wonder what either character really hopes to achieve, or why they continue to put themselves through these situations that do more harm than good, other than to advance the plot.
When Curtis bets on a random basketball game, and refuses to pay up, he winds up getting beaten and robbed. This scene and others like it have a random, aimless quality. The clichéd ending doesn’t help. At one point, Curtis turns down a woman, because of his feelings for his girlfriend in St. Louis; but near the end of the movie, he wakes up to a next to a mystery woman, even though he had just confessed his love to his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Gerry loses more than he gains, and when he does succeed, Curtis is always ready to back him up with a seemingly endless reservoir of money. If Curtis doesn’t mind letting Gerry burn all his money in gambling, why didn’t he help pay off the loan sharks? The initial reason for their journey becomes less and less important to the character as the film moves along.
When one of the loan shark henchmen sends Gerry a text from his house, and subtly threatens his cat, Gerry seems interested in it for all but five minutes. The exchange is completely forgotten by the end of the film. Where are the consequences? When Gerry gets stabbed, he doesn’t even need go to the hospital. It’s impossible to sympathize with seemingly invincible characters.
However, “Mississippi Grind” occasionally hits a few satisfying genre notes: Part road-film, part-gambling excursion, and part-bromance, the film does show the influence of its talented directors. But falters when it comes down the story itself.
“Mississippi Grind” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.