Mississippi Grind: Born Losers, by Tyler Smith
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are interested in misfits; those people that live among us, but never quite feel like they truly belong. Often, these people will have a certain hobby or behavior that keeps them from ever truly being a part of mainstream society. In Half Nelson, we had a teacher with a monstrous drug habit. In It’s Kind of a Funny Story, we dealt with depression and mental illness. In their latest film, Mississippi Grind, we deal with gambling addiction and the constant thrill that comes with the knowledge that the next hand of cards or roll of the dice could either make you or break you.
This territory has been trod before in films like Owning Mahowny and The Gambler, but seldom with the sense of shambling self loathing contained in Mississippi Grind. The destructive nature of gamblers is front and center in this film, with two characters- one cool and confident and the other tired and broken- perpetually putting off the eventual failure that they’re hurtling towards. I’m reminded of an exchange in Out of the Past, when Robert Mitchum is asked if there is a way to win at roulette. He simply responds, “There’s a way to lose more slowly.”
That’s the attitude of our main characters. They may appear to be attempting to improve their lots in life, but there seems to be an unspoken acceptance that there is no ultimate victory here. Money may be won in glitzy, glorious fashion, but everything will eventually be lost in the same way. That’s the cycle, and it goes on and on until the characters themselves decide to break it.
But, then, these aren’t the types that are big into self improvement. They simply exist, with their heads barely above water. We have Gerry, a realtor, played with palpable contempt for himself and the world around him by Ben Mendelsohn. Gerry owes money all around town and is regularly threatened by his exasperated bookies. He sleepwalks through his normal life, stopping occasionally to feed his cat; but his real passion kicks in once the sun goes down and the gambling halls open up. In this setting, Gerry is a charming, charismatic man whose life finally has meaning. Gambling isn’t simply a hobby, nor is it a financial means to an end; it is his sole reason for living, and he’ll do it as long as he is able, even if he can’t technically afford it.
Curtis, on the other hand, seems much more casual about everything. Played with the standard suave demeanor by Ryan Reynolds, Curtis finds his worth in his ability to blow in and out of people’s lives without ever really being affected by them. For him, gambling is not an emotional necessity, but a practical one. It allows him to deal with people as equally disengaged from society as he is, and make just enough money to move on to the next town. His addiction isn’t necessarily gambling, but perpetual motion.
Putting these two men together allows for all manner of enabling and self delusion. Each man uses the other’s enthusiasm for terrible ideas to build up his own self confidence. As the two embark on a gambling road trip along the Mississippi River, they come upon similar lost souls whose lives are both charmingly funny and devastatingly sad, often at the same time. And with each encounter, their own broken lives are reflected back to them, causing them to, of course, hit the road and not look back.
Films like these tend to fail or succeed on the strength of their dialogue and acting, and Mississippi Grind is no exception. While at times the dialogue may get a bit too clever, and the general story may dip too often into plot convenience, the acting is top notch, and does just as much to sell the desperation of this world as the dark, moody cinematography and oppressive editing style.
Ryan Reynolds manages to find a sad core underneath his usual fun-loving exterior. The mannerisms are the same as we’ve seen before, but we are occasionally allowed a glimmer of regret and world-weariness to go with them. Curtis may be a charmer, but he’s an aging charmer, for whom the romantic sheen of the open road has started to rub off, revealing loneliness and longing. Reynolds plays these moments without ever overplaying them, and the character is eventually revealed to be much deeper than we would initially assume.
Ben Mendelsohn creates in Gerry a character that deserves to be thought of in the same way as Miles from Sideways or Harry Stoner in Save the Tiger. He is the latest in a long line of cinematic losers whose self worth evaporated long ago, leaving only occasional enjoyment and distraction. Gerry’s sadness is believable not because Mendelsohn slouches and pouts his way through the film, but because his energy is so manic at times that it’s clear he’s trying to cheer himself up or maybe even convince himself that there’s still hope for his life. The desperation behind his smile is what betrays Gerry’s true emotional situation, and Mendelsohn pulls it off in a way that is pathetic, disgusting, and endearing. Were Mississippi Grind a higher profile movie, Ben Mendelsohn would be in contention for a Best Actor Oscar, and might even deserve to win.
These sad men are our protagonists in Mississippi Grind, and they dictate the general tone of the film. Dizzying highs and crushing lows; that is the life of a gambler. And, through the way Boden and Fleck linger on the cards, the dice, the chips, and all the other instruments with which these men ruin their lives, the filmmakers create a world where every single hand matters, even if the stakes are low. Because, with these characters, it’s never really about how much they’re winning; only that they are. And the winning is savored all the more because the inevitable loss is always right around the corner, and why shouldn’t we try to have a little fun before the other shoe drops?
This is the broken mentality of what many would deem a loser. And, indeed, Gerry is a loser. Curtis probably is, too. But just because they’re losers doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have their stories told, and with loving sympathy and hardbitten truth. That is the essence of what Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have devoted their filmmaking to; the stories of people that society might find repulsive and pathetic, but that they see as desperately needing understanding and redemption.