Like the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, the 1970s have become a seemingly endless fount of inspiration and ideas for current independent filmmakers. The latest example is Mississippi Grind, a road movie about two unlikely friends who gamble their way down the Mississippi River in hopes of making a big score at a legendary private poker game in New Orleans.
In their fourth feature, filmmaking partners Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden follow examples set by naturalistic, character-driven films from the early '70s such as Robert Altman's California Split and Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. Like those classics of the New Hollywood era, Mississippi Grind relies on mood, setting and small truths found in the idiosyncrasies of its characters, all brought to life through exceptional performances by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (The Place Beyond the Pines), Ryan Reynolds (Adventureland) and a stellar supporting cast.
Before gambling addict Gerry (Mendelsohn) says a word in the film's opening scenes, it's clear he has the weight of the world on his slumping shoulders. Gerry meets the younger and more charismatic Curtis (Reynolds) at a casino poker game in Iowa and a friendship begins. They are an odd pair but one that somehow makes emotional sense for each. Desperate to extricate himself from a deep financial hole, Gerry sees Curtis as the positive force and good-luck charm he needs. Curtis' joviality seems to mask deep-seated issues, and he appears sincere when he says it's the game itself — and not the prospect of winning — that keeps him so engaged.
On their way to New Orleans, Gerry and Curtis try their luck in St. Louis, Memphis and Tunica, Mississippi, and there is a detour to Little Rock, Arkansas to see Gerry's long-lost family. At every stop the film offers a series of neon-lit nighttime portraits (by cinematographer Andrij Parekh) of often-familiar landmarks, an intentionally mundane but oddly effective way of distilling the character of each town. The gaming scenes, typically the primary source of tension and excitement in movies about gambling, focus more on local color and the world-weary faces of the players (many of whom were found at casinos along the Mississippi) than on the particulars of the games or their outcomes.
Essential to Mississippi Grind's Southern road-movie vibe is a blues-centered soundtrack of regional music, ranging from early legends Furry Lewis and Memphis Slim to late-20th century titans Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. It's a remarkably savvy and atmospheric selection of songs (available on the film's two Road Mix soundtrack releases, one each for Gerry and Curtis) that propels the road trip (and the movie) forward.
Among the film's unexpected gifts are appearances by an unrecognizable Sienna Miller (American Sniper) and Analeigh Tipton (Lucy) as casino-employed call girls and love interests for Gerry and Curtis. The film struggles to recover from the loss of their soulful presence once the road trip resumes.
Mississippi Grind has one too many reversals of fortune for its protagonists as the story winds down in New Orleans. (Unlike the film's earlier city portraits, the New Orleans scenes focus on people as well as landmarks.) But the story eventually goes to unexpected places, particularly in finding the meaning of the duo's journey. What good is a road trip without a few surprises?