Gentle, poignant and brilliant, Mississippi Grind sends its two drifters on a genuinely believable and moving journey, in a story where the destination doesn't really matter, it's how they get there.
In 2015, you wouldn’t be mistaken for assuming that the road movie sub-genre had died out. With the exceptions of post-2000 gems such as Little Miss Sunshine, O Brother Where Art Thou and Almost Famous, this particular type of film has seemed to fade away. Which is why, to my wholly pleasant surprise, this particular effort from the budding duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, comes as a welcome and unexpected treat.
The plot point of a down on of his luck everyman drowning in debt from loan sharks and the like isn’t exactly an original concept, in fact in recent times, Rupert Wyatt’s remake of The Gambler and to a lesser extent Robert Luketic’s 21 have shown that despite a bevy of talent, this cliché trope has the makings of a lacklustre affair. Which is why immense praise should be handed to the teaming of Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds for elevating this picture from it’s well trodden path.
The story, which is simple enough, follows the journey of Gerry (Mendelsohn), for all intents and purposes a ‘loser’, who runs into stranger Curtis (Reynolds) seemingly by fate, and begins a wacky adventure down the Mississippi hitting all the casinos and gambling points in order to recoup the money Gerry owes. Although some might yawn at the premise, the creative team and players within this production never allow it to be swallowed by the expected character/plot beats.
Rather candidly, Reynolds and Mendelsohn are at the top of their game. With characters so easy to fall short on, the two leads really understand the nuances within the script. The Australian native Mendelsohn has over recent years, carved himself a niche in the Hollywood scene by playing rather despicable characters a la his brief roles in The Dark Knight Rises and Exodus: Gods and Kings. His Gerry however, despite some of his more morally questionable actions, is at heart a very sympathetic and real character, caught in a vicious circle (albeit of his own doing). Mendelsohn produces a calculated and immaculate performance, which anchors the emotional core of the film. With his terrific turn in Animal Kingdom arguably still his most compelling, he is really beginning to make a name for himself.
However, it wouldn’t be half the performance we get without the brilliant casting of Ryan Reynolds. Coming off the back off several box-office bombs, Reynolds puts in his best performance in years. I’m one of those who believe he has always been a great actor, usually the best component of bad films such Green Lantern and The Proposal and firmly believe he could see a revival in his career following the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Jake Gyllenhaal into a Hollywood heavyweight. Here he has the more commonly showy role as the mysterious charismatic drifter. His easy charisma and charm makes his role easy to watch but it’s his quiet moments of vulnerability and contemplation throughout that highlight his acting chops. Much like Cruise to Hoffman, his character acts as a platform for Mendelsohn’s character and together, the emerging ‘bromance’ becomes sincere and genuine. He has proven his versatility in his previous works such as Buried in which he’s the only character onscreen for it’s 95 minute runtime and recently in the zany horror comedy The Voices in which he plays an insane man with talking pets and psychotic tendencies. His retreat into smaller indie roles have showcased what he can do and will hopefully propel him into future roles.
What should also be mentioned is how the director/writing team of Boden and Fleck understand the value of allowing their characters to breathe and be fleshed out and feel like real people. This knack for creating realistic, flawed characters has been littered throughout their previous works such as Half Nelson and Sugar. Both have believable, relatable characters despite one having a crack-smoking teacher and the other having a Dominican baseball player as their respective leads. In an age where flashy direction and Sorkin-esque dialogue are widely seen as the norm, the simple direction and ease in which they allow the characters to sell the story has become increasingly effective and deserves the kudos it is getting.
Despite the mass popularity of Reynolds and the growing recognition of Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind found itself stuck without real distribution and has been knocking about since January 2015, having a limited release in the UK on October. All of which is a shame because it means the masses have missed out on one of the best character studies of the year.
Mississippi Grind (2015), directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One. Certificate 15.