Friday, January 30, 2015

Sundance ’15: Mississippi Grind

Apparently, Gerry never heard the old Kenny Rogers song. He is the sort of gambler you bet against and feel fine about doing so. He might win for a while, because he spends every spare moment studying various games of chance, but he reeks of losing. However, he believes his fortunes have turned when he teams up with a younger, luckier gambler in Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Curtis is just passing through. That’s what he does. Gerry really ought to be leaving soon. He owes a lot of people a lot of money, but just keeps digging a bigger hole for himself. Strangely enough, he wins when playing at Curtis’s table, but he promptly blows all his takings on an ill-advised bet shortly thereafter. When fate subsequently brings them together again, Gerry recognizes a good thing. Determined to keep it going, Gerry convinces Curtis to join forces to play regional games and hole-in-the-wall casinos as they work their way down the Mississippi towards a high stakes poker game in New Orleans.

It sounds like a winning proposition, but the “sign”-obsessed Gerry cannot change his spots. He is still a crummy person and when Curtis is not around, he keeps finding ways to lose. In contrast, Curtis might be slightly commitment-phobic, but he is dramatically healthier than Gerry, often preferring to visit the local blues club over a tacky gambling den. It is really quite considerate of him, since it justifies Grind’s savory blues soundtrack (and some original themes scored by Scott Bomar).

Although Gerry, the aggressive screw-up, is the flashier role, Grind still might prove to be a career pivot for Ryan Reynolds. As Curtis, he plays with and against his pretty-boy type-casting, showing surprising grit down the stretch. Although Ben Mendelsohn is relatively restrained compared to some of his scenery-chomping villainous turns, he fully embraces Gerry’s pathetic, self-deluding, self-centered nature. Frankly, sometimes it is painful to watch his debasement.

Granted, anyone who has seen a gambling road movie will have a general idea where Grind is headed, but Fleck & Boden give the material a few nice twists, including the ironic but wholly fitting third act source of the title. They exhibit a strong sense of place, grounding the film in picturesque Southern-border state locales. It is also certainly safe to say they never glamorize gambling. In fact, the film could almost be a PSA for Gamblers Anonymous and a seedier, more naturalistic corrective to noir-ish The Gambler and Chow Yun-fat’s heroic God of Gamblers franchise. Recommended for fans of gambling films with local flavor, Mississippi Grind screens again tomorrow (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.