Monday, September 28, 2015

Mississippi Grind (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck


There's an inherent dichotomy in most gambling movies in the vain of Mississippi Grind. They usually are very fatalistic about the consequences of gambling: lives ruined, families and friendships torn apart, broken trusts that are beyond repair. All that said, these films usually put the protagonist in a place to redeem themselves by - you guessed it - betting the farm in one last major play. Even the Paul Newman masterpiece, The Hustler, with its conclusion wrapped in despairing realities, lets the main character win big to settle the score. Don't get me wrong. I don't exactly see this as a flaw within this specific sub-genre, not all the time anyway. Gambling presents a never-ending cycle, with the odds stating simply that misery will not always be the result, it's the perpetual possibility of the win that makes the compulsive gambler so tragic - there's never really a good enough reason to stop. Mississippi Grind, the latest from the terrific indie filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, takes a stab at this conceit, understanding this basic concept about gambling and the people that fall into its grasp. Like their previous films, Grind has an infatuation with lost souls, and like their very best film, Half Nelson, we're introduced to an odd couple struggling with the amount of need one has for the other. In a lot of ways, Mississippi Grind is a love story unlike anything we've seen in a gambling movie before.

The odd couple here is Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn who continues to expand the impressive variety of low-lifes he can play on the screen; and Ryan Reynolds, an infamously handsome actor who has more talent than Ryan Gosling, but who's wasted it on one too many dogshit Hollywood films. That Reynolds still gets anything in the way of opportunity after his last decade (over a dozen major starring roles, one hit, The Proposal, which could probably be better attributed to his co-star, Sandra Bullock), is a true miracle, and a damning testament to how far being a beautiful, white male actor can take you in the movie business. Reynolds plays Curtis, a wandering charmer who travels alone from place to place looking for people to impress. When he arrives in an Iowa poker tournament and sits at a table that also seats Gerry (Mendelsohn), he makes his presence immediately known. Gerry immediately embraces Curtis' expansive gregariousness, laughs at his jokes and appreciates him picking his table amongst the others. Curtis orders a couple of shots of his favorite bourbon, Woodford, one for him and one for Gerry, and from that moment on, Gerry is not only charmed but convinced that Curtis provides good luck. Roaming through Iowa, Gerry and Curtis score big at a dog race, and Gerry's feelings are confirmed. When Curtis mentions his destination: a secret New Orleans poker game with a $25,000 buy-in, Gerry proposes a trip down the Mississippi, gambling as they go, collecting the needed $25,000 and winning big at the poker game in New Orleans.

Curtis' interest in Gerry is hard to read at first, other than the fact that he seems to like oddities. When they make their first stop, they run into a couple of prostitutes. One of them, Simone (Sienna Miller), is an obvious old flame for Curtis, while the other, Vanessa (Analeigh Tipton), is a young ingenue. As their trip begins, Gerry's prophecy of Curtis' good luck rings true. Scoring high-stakes poker hands, winning seems all but a foregone conclusion, the possibility of loss in the rear-view mirror. Of course, it's not simply the money that motivates Gerry, but what he needs the money for. In deep with just about everyone in his Iowa home, including a few thousand to a sweet but modestly ruthless loan shark named Sam (Alfre Woodard, in a performance of single-scene excellence) who all but insures that Gerry can't go back home with anything less than what he owes. As is usually the case with compulsive gamblers, the prophecies tend to be no more than enabling thoughts, self-created motivations to give their addiction more purpose. Gerry's luck at the table turns directions, while Curtis watches on, worried about the fate of his new friend. Along the way to New Orleans, the two men search all over to find new inspiration: various casinos and hotels, more underground poker games, even a small detour to Little Rock to visit Gerry's estranged ex-wife, Dorothy (Robin Weigert). As is always the case, luck comes and goes as it pleases, but with Gerry always on the search for a sign, their trip south becomes yet another lost journey for the two listless men.

It's unlikely that anybody could imagine a buddy film between Reynolds and Mendelsohn really working before seeing this film. The two actors seem to be living on separate plains of existence; but seeing them play off of each other makes you realize just how talented both are as performers. Grind's screenplay is intimate, understanding that what keeps this unlikely pair together is an unsaid, mutually shared affection. It's probably the best hetero male love story we've seen since The Master in 2012. Both films involve a troubling friendship built upon self-destruction, and both films understand that the female characters are disposable to the men at the center of the story. At one point, Curtis, sitting in a Memphis track talks relationships with an elderly gentleman who claims to have been married six times. Asking him if he misses married life, the gentleman replies that it is was always better than being alone. Gerry and Curtis miss their women, and probably do have a love for them, but it doesn't extend further than the love they have for each other. Their combined excitement over living life on the edge - Gerry with his gambling, Curtis with his permanent emotional detachment - is what makes them as perfect for each other as they prove to be throughout the film. How Fleck and Boden tap into this is fascinating. It's not blunt or obvious. Their camera is simply observant and non-judgmental.

It probably goes without saying that the reason Grind works so well is because Mendelsohn and Reynolds are so great in it. The symbiosis between the two actors throughout the film feels effortless and real. Like End of the Tour from earlier this year, we're given an extensive view of two men whose personalities mesh with surprising alacrity. Mendelsohn's Gerry is nothing particularly new, a sad sack gambler whose constant need to make things right is always trumped by the urge that he can always win more, but still, the Australian actor knows just the right calibration to play here. Gerry is a man blind to rock bottom, blind to anything really that isn't a possible winning ticket. He doesn't even accept sex from Vanessa when it's so apparently available. Curtis is much more of a curio, a cypher who's apparent homelessness doesn't seem to subtract from his taste in menswear and manscaping prowess. Reynolds doesn't really play up the mystery of Curtis, even though it's always there. We don't need to know how Curtis has gotten this seemingly invisible torrent of money, we see him walk into a room and accept that almost everything he has is probably given to him. Curtis is a classic Reynolds performance: funny, damaged, without much in the way of sincerity. He plays alongside Mendelsohn so well, because he's unafraid to give up the upper hand. Gerry wears his pathetic nature on his sleeve, you can see it in his slouch. It's very possible that Curtis is even worse, but we'd never know it because we're too distracted by his piercing gaze.

High-level filmmaking has never really been amongst the list of things that Boden and Fleck excel at, but Grind has a visual rhythm. Working with their usual cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, Grind is unafraid to let the camera tell the story. Parekh is moving past the handheld grittiness of Half Nelson and Blue Valentine and approaching something like a personal style. A shot early in the film recalls Altman in the very best way, and this film is directed with a certainty. But this is still a film that is lead by the performances and the writing. If the movie's final act feels like it is toggling along a bit (and it does), it's only because Boden and Fleck feel uncomfortable leaving us with a sweeping high or a devastating low. They prefer the nuance of actual life, a mixture of victory and cynicism. In an underwhelming year in American film, 2015 has been highlighted by films involving duos - the punch-counterpunch dialogue of End of the Tour; the outlandish but sweet friendship at the heart of Tangerine - and Mississippi Grind places near the top in that category. It's patience with Gerry and Curtis is endearing, its ability to look at life with such a bright yet unflinching eye makes you want to see everything that these characters are going through. This is not the kind of damaging movie that affects the audience like Half Nelson, its half-hearted care for its characters is more infectious. It's the best of what the road movie has to offer, and star on the sub-genre of gambling pictures. Above all, it's a smart, real drama about the human condition, a worthy gamble for any moviegoer.

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