Mississippi Grind

Posted by Joel Copling on October 28, 2015

An old trope about country music comes to mind when regarding how this film travels from its first act to its final one, and it's no wonder. The trope, which came from Harlan Howard, stated that the genre was built upon three chords and the truth. This can really applied to anything, however, even a film's structure, so it's no surprise that "Mississippi Grind" happens in three vignettes of confident filmmaking and storytelling with rough-and-tumble themes involving one man's hubris and another man's unwitting lack thereof. These are two sad individuals whose places at the end of the film are less certain than the flowery way they are presented, and therein lies why the final shots of both make so much sense.

Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), like Ford, is not a good person, something he makes perfectly clear to our other protagonist before long. He is a real estate agent who isn't, it seems, even very good at his job (detachedly standing off to the side and staring into space while prospective customers discuss amongst themselves what works). He's also deep into debt with "everyone" in his town but mostly to Sam (Alfre Woodard), who politely tells him he'll be visited by her associate the next day. Gerry is also a compulsive gambler who never wins and bets thousands of dollars he doesn't even technically have on everything--even, at one point, on crucial life decisions.

He meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), like Mayfield, at a game of Texas Hold 'Em. Curtis is Gerry's polar opposite, both in personality (less of a sadsack than Gerry and lot more quick-witted and fast-talking--clearly the casting of this role was spot-on) and luck (Curtis wins a lot by never caring if he loses and taking whatever comes his way). Gerry sees a momentary solution to his money problems when Curtis mentions a game led by Tony Roundtree (James Toback) that might result in a lot of money. It involves a trip down the Mississippi River. The film's middle act becomes a series of adventures that manage never to feel routine because they shed so much light on these two people.

That rings true both for this pair and for each part of the pair. Mendelsohn and Reynolds are both superb here at playing these men's facades and the sadder truths underneath their masks. Gerry has an ex-wife named Dorothy (Robin Weigert), who has since remarried (amusing, he reflects, that her new husband's name is Gary), and a daughter whom he has neither seen nor talked to in years. His plan is to win her back, but then again, that's not his real plan. Curtis has an ongoing flirtation/fling with a call girl named Simone (Sienna Miller), to whose friend and colleague Vanessa (an excellent Analeigh Tipton) Gerry is introduced without the expected outcome.

The finale finds success of a sort for both of these broken individuals, but the screenplay by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don't define "success" so simply. There is still a litany of uncertainty around the corner, and "Mississippi Grind" lives in that state of uncertainty with such understanding of it that the impact of a relatively straightforward character study is deepened as a result. That brings us back to the old trope about country music. There are the three chords (where Gerry and Curtis are at the beginning, where the road trip takes them physically and philosophically in the middle, and where they end up) and the truth (which is just offscreen, waiting for them, rather than we observers, to discover it).

Film Information

Ben Mendelsohn (Gerry), Ryan Reynolds (Curtis), Sienna Miller (Simone), Analeigh Tipton (Vanessa), James Toback (Tony Roundtree), Robin Weigert (Dorothy), Alfre Woodard (Sam).

Directed and written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Rated R (language).

108 minutes.

Released in select cities on September 25, 2015.