There is something ineffably cinematic about gambling. Perhaps it’s the range of emotions that derive from the simple act of turning over a card, or throwing a dice – moments that can quite literally make or break those taking part.
More so than in real life, casinos have always proved to be a somewhat triumphant stomping ground in the world of movies, spawning incredible films ranging from the likes of Casino, Guys and Dolls, Hard Eight, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Sting – and we could go on. So what is it about these remarkable pieces of cinema that make for such intense, rewarding experiences?
Firstly, it’s the ability to move between despair and exhilaration in the blink of an eye. Filmmakers revel in changing pace, to go from happy to sad in a seamless manner, without feeling contrived, is one of the hardest tasks for directors to pull off – but with gambling, it’s almost done for you, because the characters emotions are projected onto the viewer, as we become immersed and embroiled in their endeavour, leaving us vulnerable to feeling as ecstatic as they might be, or as distinctively low as they’re likely to end up.
This is where Mississippi Grind – the latest in a long line of excellent pictures surrounding the theme of gambling – thrives, as we’re taken through the motions, with as many highs as there are lows; we become engulfed in the haphazard adventure between two gambling addicts, played with a sincere conviction by the incredible Ben Mendelsohn and a gloriously reinvented Ryan Reynolds.
That word addict is an essential one too – because though some films may be accused of glorifying the act of gambling, generally speaking, it’s portrayed in a reprehensible light, as we watch how our protagonist’s are destroyed through this seemingly playful hobby. In Mississippi Grind this is most certainly the case, and the recent Mark Wahlberg picture The Gambler also revelled in this notion, where we studiously scrutinised over a lead character harbouring what can only be described as an unhealthy affliction. This adds a level of depth and pathos to films that focus on this theme. It’s not always about the suave suits, the vivacious Las Vegas landscape, nor the free-flowing dollar bills: what about the moments when you’re left sitting on the pavement, head in hands, pondering where to turn after losing a considerable amount of money?
Another key factor in why these films are so enjoyable too, is because we live vicariously through the protagonist – meaning that we take these huge gambles, without ever risking our actual hard-earned cash. Gambling can be fun – be it putting money on a horse, or taking on the dealer in a quick game of 21 – but there’s also something rather significant at stake: our money. In the movies, the cash is not a tangible thing, we can’t physically hold onto our stake. So while we feel the same emotions as the characters: feeling aggrieved when losing, and joyous when winning, we’re doing so without ever actually putting anything on the table.
Mississippi Grind, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck is a more than worthwhile picture that is emblematic of why gambling makes for such absorbing, compelling cinema. The only gamble for the audience though, is that of paying for a ticket to see the film in the hope of leaving enlightened, moved and inspired. Well, that’s almost a given where this ace production is concerned, as you’ll leave feeling a little royal flushed to say the least.