The poster for A24 films’ latest release, Mississippi Grind, hails it as “A Great American Movie”. On a surface level, it’s certainly easy to see why. The road trip, and its associated film genre, is so ubiquitously American that we have an entire regular column dissecting what it means for the American audience. On top of that, Mississippi Grind is a tale of get-rich-quick schemes, of scrappy underdogs, of taking chances, everything that Americans love in our stories. But there’s an underlying darkness to the nationalism of a film which deals almost exclusively in addiction and desperation. If it’s true that the American poor see themselves as temporarily-embarrassed millionaires, then writers/directors Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck have created characters as intertwined with the darkness of the American Dream as any put forth by John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Michael Bay. They accentuate this by deliberately invoking and homaging great ’70s road classics and steeping it in Southern culture.
Mississippi Grind follows the developing friendship of Gerry (Ben Mendlesohn), a debt-laden gambling addict, and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a free-wheeling mystery man with seemingly no responsibilities and a knack for reading people. Believing Curtis to be his good-luck charm and the answer to his financial woes, Gerry convinces his new friend to take a road trip with him to New Orleans to compete in a high-stakes poker tournament. Since neither man has the $25,000 buy-in money needed to compete, they hit every casino and backroom game they can find along the way so Gerry can compete to win the cash. Gradually, more and more about the two mens’ true motives is revealed, as are their weaknesses—some more obvious than others.
Mendlesohn and Reynolds are clearly reveling in their characters, with each of them coming at the roles as though they have something to prove. Ryan Reynolds finally gets to portray the sadness behind the charm that he’s spent the better part of his career attempting to find, while Mendlesohn, best known for his scene-stealing character roles, finally is given the opportunity to carry a film on his own merits. He absolutely dominates this film, even (maybe “especially”) when showing moments of weakness. Gerry is the incarnation of the inanity of the Gambler’s Fallacy combined with the absolute desperation of the American Dream: too deluded to admit when he’s behind, too stubborn to quit while he’s ahead. At Gerry’s highest moments, Mendlesohn competes with Reynolds in understated cool and charm. In his lows, which come with the flip of a card, his self-destruction is written all over his face. Inevitable, but still heartbreaking.Curtis and Gerry represent two sides of lower-middle-class American ideals: Curtis is how we view ourselves, Gerry is what we really are, and it’s Curtis who eggs Gerry along for unknown purposes. If you weren’t sure about this, the final shot of the film features Gerry alone, sitting in a used Subaru pondering what to do next in his life as the windshield-reflection of the American flag covers most of his face. Bowden/Fleck use this kind of shot often, playing with reflections in diner windows and hotel mirrors, covering our protagonists in these unromanticised but essential parts of the American Road Trip. Although the trip starts off with the standard symbols of Americana (one scene takes place directly in front of the Gateway Arch), it soon devolves into something of a darkened chore, exploring un-scenic locales such as Little Rock, where no one really wants to be.
Mississippi Grind uses a recurring motif of rainbows, as our main characters chase desperately for a pot of gold that may not even exist. (Whether or not it also hints at a possible homosexual relationship between the two men is up for debate.) In a way, indie film dreamers Bowden and Fleck also pursue their own fleeting dream. Making a Great American Movie is a bit like ordering the Great American Novel. Mississippi Grind falls short of this goal in several ways, including multiple confusing or unsatisfying plot resolutions. However, like a perfect rainbow, a valiant effort to swing for greatness is still a sight to behold.Liked This? Share It!