Addiction is a subject that has not been avoided by cinema. Films such as The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses show the horrors of alcoholism, and films like Requiem for a Dream and Clean and Sober expose the lives of drug addicts. However, one form of addiction has not been explored as widely as it could be, and in the opinion of many people, it is an addiction just as damaging as drug addiction or alcoholism – an addiction to gambling, which is the major driving force behind Mississippi Grind, one of the most brutally funny films I’ve seen in a long time, but one with a serious message.
The film tells the story of Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) a real-estate agent with a major gambling problem. One night, he encounters Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a street-smart and intelligent gambler who seems to have more luck than he does failures, which is the opposite for Gerry. Together, they work as a team to try and win as much as they can, embarking on a road trip down to the Mississippi River, where they plan to take part in a very exclusive and expensive poker tournament. However, this is far from being the glamorized and glittery view of casinos and gambling that many forms of media will have you suggest – while the film is wonderfully funny, it is also a very dark portrayal of the life of a pair of gamblers, one who gambles because he feels he has the skills, the other because he doesn’t have any other choice – he has borrowed money (and sometimes even stole it) from many people, and the fact that he is heavily in debt, but also having a major problem with gambling creates a Catch-22 situation – how can a man who is deeply in debt from gambling expect to pay off those debts by gambling again and again? Of course, not to spoil the film, but I can assure you it does have a relatively happy, if not nihilistic, resolution.
Ben Mendelsohn has his star on the rise. Years of being a dedicated character actor has to result in something or the other, and having been a great actor in his native Australia for decades now (I can recall him giving tremendous performances way back from 1994, in the heartbreaking drama Metal Skin). Mendelsohn is rapidly becoming a greatly respected actor, and he only needs one role to completely breakthrough into the mainstream. His performance in Starred Up two years ago was truly wonderful, and constant work since then has been beneficial to his career. Mississippi Grind is the exact film he needed, as it proved him as being a leading man in a serious but accessible film, and to be able to portray a character that audiences can connect to – even if you have never gambled a day in your life, I am sure everyone can relate to Gerry, from his everyman attitude to his survival methods that involve some very questionable activities. Mendelsohn probably gives my favorite male performance of the year, along with Jacob Tremblay and Sir Ian McKellen, and considering he was able to make such a tragic character into someone we can relate to speaks volumes to Mendelsohn’s abilities.
Ryan Reynolds is also having a great year, with Deadpool proving that he really is a leading man with impeccable comic timing and screen presence. Reynolds has constantly tried to be a major leading star, and prior to Deadpool, his career wasn’t in the best place – a string of big-budgeted box office bombs and critical failures did not help Reynolds very much. However, deep in his filmography were some smaller, very obscure films – The Voices was probably his finest moment, and a film like Buried showed off his dramatic skills. Mississippi Grind was simply another of the small, independent films that had Reynolds doing his very best work, and the strange part is that Reynolds is the straight man of the group – the voice of reason, and the far more mature character. He is also far more interesting than the initial impression the audience is given. He goes through a dramatic arc, and the film is peppered with small references to something far bigger – there must be a reason why Curtis gambles so much, and why he has such an emotional connection to gaining money – it is clear that it isn’t for wealth, but rather for something far bigger and more important to him. When the film finally shows the reason behind this, the emotional payoff is absolutely heartbreaking, and something that I am sure hits very close to home for many of us.
Mississippi Grind is a great film. It has a wonderfully deep atmosphere, and it shows the side of gambling that films don’t generally show, while still being frequently funny. It is a formidable drama about addiction, and a deeply meaningful road-trip comedy, and it finds the perfect balance between the serious and the lighthearted. Mendelsohn and Reynolds are absolutely fantastic, and the film itself is wonderful. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it is truly an entertaining and emotionally resonant film, and one that I feel was important to make, because if this film can persuade even one gambler who exhibits the traits of addiction to rather just walk away, then it would be worth it. But other than that, it is an incredibly well-made and entertaining film, and just another great addition to the canon of great independent comedies.