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MISSISSIPPI GRIND doesn’t insult your intelligence about gambling…

Posted on September 18th, 2015
Posted on September 18th, 2015

by Coop Cooper

I’ve never been a huge fan of gambling films. They tend to glorify an unrealistic amount of luck while passing off the luck and the skill as heroic or virtuous qualities. Fortunately, “Mississippi Grind” is not your typical gambling film.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a gambler in Iowa who owes every bookie in town and can’t seem to catch a break. At a poker game, he meets the charismatic Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) who inspires him with confidence and a winning attitude. The two become fast friends and Gerry begins to see signs from on high that his luck is about to change. Gerry suggests to Curtis that they take all that they have and hit every casino along the Mississippi River down to New Orleans to make one big score to solve all of their problems. Unfortunately, Gerry’s luck takes a turn to for the worse, and his good luck charm, Curtis, may have some dark secrets of his own.

This road buddy movie may appear to be a feel-good, happy-go-lucky romp in the trailers, but for most of the film, it feels like a long decent in darkness. “Grind” sidesteps many of the usual ‘lovable loser gambler’ tropes to focus more on the ugly side of gambling addiction and the financial/mental devastation it can cause. Quite often throughout the story, you almost wish you could reach out and slap these characters for the foolish risks they take and the bad things they do as a result of their poor decisions. It’s less about the thrill of the win and more about the emotional toll of the loss. When someone loses over and over again for so long, they either learn their lesson or break. In “Grind”, you see both characters suffer through this and it is not meant to be exciting. The film is more of a character study of two desperate men who have gotten to the point where a bit of luck is the only thing that is going to pull them out of the misery they put themselves into. That makes it more complex and substantial than a simple gambling thriller or road buddy picture.

Mendelsohn has been on my radar since he played a young, villainous ranch hand in the 1990 western “Quigley Down Under”. Since then, he has appeared in many reliable character roles (mostly bad guys) over the years, but only recently has he been getting more leads. Based on his performance in “Grind”, his other recent leading performances and his increased star power, I suspect Mendelsohn could win an Oscar once he finds the right role. His next project puts him in the Star Wars universe in the “Rogue One” spinoff which comes out in 2016.

Ryan Reynolds continues to surprise when he takes dramatic roles, especially in small independent films. His campaign to take over Hollywood as an A-list, leading man failed after a string of bombs left him less bankable than when he started. While he still pursues that golden ring, he has taken more risks in the indie scene and with “Mississippi Grind”, it has once again paid off. His role as Curtis is more mysterious than Gerry’s, as is his motivation. His self-destructive behavior suggests a deep pain, and possibly a mental illness. It’s hard to say if his character actually changes over the course of the story as much as Mendelsohn’s does, but his performance is just as powerful. In 2016, he gets to redeem one of his previous comic book characters. As Deadpool in the 2009 film “Wolverine”, his very popular character was poorly used and quickly discarded. He will return as “Deadpool” in his own, self-titled movie that will hopefully do the character justice.

Oxford, Mississippi resident Susan McPhail continues her streak appearing in memorable roles, this time playing a poker player who deals Gerry a devastating blow during one of his most desperate moments. “Grind” also features an appearance by the Delta’s own blues phenom Leo “Bud” Welch along with Jimbo Mathis and Stu Cole as his accompaniment in one of the Casinos. The film is full of Mississippi blues music from John Lee Hooker on down to Junior Kimbrough.

It might get overlooked, but “Mississippi Grind” is a gem of a dramatic film. It is currently on DirecTV pay-per-view but will release in a limited theater run on September 25th.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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