Wednesday, November 11, 2015

'Mississippi Grind' review

Ryan Reynolds is one of the most puzzling actors in Hollywood to me. He's charismatic, he's funny, and he has a major presence on social media, yet his films just never seem to stick. Every time that I think he's going to catch a big break, something goes wrong. Green Lantern was a massive failure, R.I.P.D. barely even registered on the Hollywood Richter scale, and the list just goes on from there. However, with Mississippi Grind, this may be the first time that I truly felt like Reynolds was a natural fit for a role. In the Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck-directed gambling comedy, Reynolds plays Curtis, a roaming stranger who seems to possess a sort of energetic magic. Alongside Ben Mendelsohn's Gerry, who suffers from a strong gambling addiction, the two will travel down the Mississippi river in search of a high-stakes poker game that will allow them to fix all of their problems. The laid-back, mellow nature of the film allows for the story and the characters to naturally unfold, giving Mendelsohn and Reynolds plenty of great material to work with. It's a vivid and rich film and an extremely satisfying character comedy, and despite a lack of attention, Mississippi Grind is one of the hidden gems of the fall.

In Dubuque, Iowa, Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a down on his luck gambler, a man seemingly destined to never win or amount to anything. But then one evening, Curtis (Reynolds) walks into the room. The young, smooth and tricky player forms an immediate bond with Gerry. But there's just one problem for Gerry- he owes a lot of money, and he owes it to everybody. In order to pay off his debts, he needs a big score, and Curtis thinks he can provide it with a high-stakes poker game in Louisiana. Searching for riches and a sense of purpose, Gerry and Curtis travel down the Mississippi river, stopping at every racetrack and poker room along the way. In addition, Gerry attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife, Curtis tries to make it work with his love (Sienna Miller) in St. Louis, all while in the search for a gambling score that will save their lives.

A24, the distributor of Mississippi Grind, is a studio that continues to fascinate me. The studio has set themselves up as the hip, indie home for Hollywood films, but there's a seemingly arbitrary system for what goes to theaters and what goes straight to VOD, with only a very limited platform release. Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year and The End of the Tour all became very solid hits for the studio in theaters, but other interesting films have been sent straight to the vacuum that is the current VOD system. Mississippi Grind is one of those films, and I can honestly say that I don't understand why. It's not esoteric or bizarre, but simply a strong character study with two great performances and a story that I think a lot of people will enjoy. Mendelsohn and Reynolds are brilliant and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck bring a maturity and poise to the film that constantly carries it. Mississippi Grind is one of the indie classics of the fall and one of the best films to come out of this year's Sundance film festival.

The best thing about Mississippi Grind is its complete and total resistance to being showy or overly stylistic. This feels like a movie that could have been made 20, 30, 40 years ago. It has a grungy, 1970's feel to it, but it's also a terrific road picture accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack filled with classic rock, country and blues hits. In all honesty, the soundtrack is probably the second most invaluable asset that the film has, next to the performances. The songs are great, and they set the mood for every scene. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh also captures the down-and-dirty nature of the casinos, gambling rooms and racetracks that Gerry and Curtis visit throughout the film, and it adds to the atmosphere of the movie.

But without Mendelsohn and Reynolds, this film might not be as profoundly entertaining or affecting as it is. Australian star Mendelsohn, one of our finest character actors, has been appearing in small parts in American films for some time now. From Killing Them Softly to his terrific turn in The Place Beyond the Pines to his roles in blockbusters such as The Dark Knight Rises, Mendelsohn has been making an impact. And here, he finally gets his chance to shine as a leading man. His performance as Gerry is funny and lively, but there's something soulful and heartbreaking at the center of it. Throughout the course of Mississippi Grind, we learn a lot about Gerry- we see his desperation, his charm and we find ourselves questioning the man he could be if he just learned to quit. Part of the kudos should most certainly go to Boden and Fleck for their terrific script, but Mendelsohn deserves a large share of the credit.

On the other hand, Reynolds finally finds a way to make his natural Hollywood charisma shine through. Curtis is the most likable character in the film, and Reynolds injects him with a whip-smart spirit. Reynolds is assured, confident and cool, but there's a guilt to Curtis that I think he portrays perfectly. He can't fix his love life, he can't get Gerry to stop gambling and in many ways, he feels stuck. Reynolds is able to portray all of that, while simultaneously delivering an entertaining performance. Mendelsohn and Reynolds' performances are great in their own right, but together, it makes for a dynamic pairing. The two actors play off each other and work with the script very well.

In terms of the characters, Gerry is a natural loser, someone who nothing goes right for. He's shy and quiet in most circumstances, but his most defining trait is that he just can't quit. And if he ever did win, for most of the movie, I'm not sure that he would know what to do with it. Curtis is the definition of a roaming gambler- he gets little scores here and there and is the brightest guy in the room. But he's constantly reaching for something higher. He always talks about how he wants to go to Macchu Picchu and have all of these epic adventures. I think that the most magical part of Mississippi Grind is seeing how Gerry and Curtis change, and seeing how deeply they care for one another. And by the end, they might just be the ones to set each other free.

I have not seen any other films by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, but with this one, they put themselves firmly on the map as a directing team to watch. The pacing here is superb, the character work is fascinating and the spirit of American road movies is on full display. At 108 minutes, Mississippi Grind has some slow patches, but never falls short of completely captivating, simply because of the realistic and calm settings and the characters. If there was ever an example of how important characters are to a movie, Mississippi Grind is it.

In my view, the fact that Mississippi Grind wasn't seen by more people is the biggest travesty of the fall season. Throughout September and October, it wasn't like the arthouses were overflowing with options and if A24 had managed to put this in more theaters, I feel that it would have broken out. But so it goes. I saw it, and for me, that's all that matters. Mississippi Grind is a fresh and richly written and directed character drama that works as both a great road movie and an entertaining showcase for Reynolds and Mendelsohn. Unless some other film comes down the pipeline in the next few months, I have no doubt in my mind that this will go down as the most underrated film of 2015. And it's up to you to change that.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Daily Mail, Daily Mail, Hollywood Reporter

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