Gambling addiction is an illness, and rarely has that been so efficiently and effectively displayed, than in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind. In a similar vein to how Steve McQueen managed with Shame, depicting sex addiction, we take a candid look into how such an illness can destroy people – though unlike Shame, there’s a playful edge to this remarkable feature, with a dark, subtle humour prevalent throughout that makes for such compelling viewing.
Ben Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a downtrodden, hapless man who spends his evenings slumped by the side of a poker table, betting his life away. His wife had left, and taken their daughter, and he spends his days alone – until the elusive, charismatic Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) shows up, who seems to have a certain degree of luck attached, and inspires Gerry to commence on a trip halfway across America, gambling their way down the Mississippi to raise the funds needed to take part in a prestigious poker tournament, where the top prize is substantial to say the least. The only problem is, they’ve got to get there first.
For an actor with the ability to terrify a viewer, and add such a sense of discomfort to proceedings, there’s something remarkably endearing about Mendelsohn within this picture. Though maintaining that same, distinctive aura of volatility, he’s sympathetic with it, and we find ourselves fervently rooting for his cause. It’s also encouraging to see yet another reputable role for Reynolds, who seems to be reinventing his career of late, with a series of intriguing, creative endeavours. Though seeming like chalk and cheese in the opening stages, it soon transpires that Gerry and Curtis are as pathetic as the other; both down on their luck; both without real prospects – both surviving from casino, to casino. They’re well-crafted, full-bodied creations too, with such depth and nuance, as we learn everything we need to know about their respective characters without ever needing unsubtle flashbacks, or lengthy, sentimental monologues.
This is emblematic of a film that revels in simplicity, with such a straightforward narrative that has been presented with a deft, accomplished execution. Plus, just to help enhance that Southern wooziness, with a similar set of sensibilities to that which we encountered in the likes of Killer Joe or Mud, Mississippi Grind comes equipped with an astonishing soundtrack. With blues tracks featuring from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi Joe Callicott and Paul “Wine” Jones – it’s just another aspect to gleefully tick off, in what is one of the finest, most absorbing dramas you’ll see this year.