Liberally lifting from Robert Altman’s classic gambling character study, “California Split”, writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Mississippi Grind” is familiar, right down to the archetypal leading characters, a schlubby sad-eyed gambler, Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), with emotional and financial debts littered in his wake and a young hotshot huckster, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), with as much money as magnetism to burn. Together they road trip from Iowa to New Orleans to enter a prestigious poker tournament in the hopes of inhabiting a mountainous fortune. It’s a proverbial tale with well-worn stopping points that are nonetheless evinced with authenticity, both in the film’s uniformly stellar acting and locales believable for these drifting kind of lifestyles. The late film payoffs, however, are where “Mississippi Grind” really shines as Boden and Fleck, in the manner of their miraculous baseball movie “Sugar,” wrangle a last third of fairly impressive and unspectacular unexpectedness. On second thought, maybe its conclusion of ambiguous hope is to be expected with a film whose opening shot is a rainbow.
The two men meet at a smalltime poker game in Dubuque and become fast friends. Each one sees something in the other. Gerry, a failing real estate agent who owes big to a local loan shark (Alfre Woodard, stunning in a single scene walk off, cordial…until, suddenly, she’s not), needs something to pin hope on, even if that hope is destined to come up bust, and the charismatic positivity of Curtis, who claims only to bet for the action, provides it. In Gerry, Curtis sees something like a reclamation project, a venture he must have taken on before, which is what we gather in scenes he shares with his faux-significant other, a hostess (Sienna Miller, so good that even though I knew she was in this movie and saw her name in the opening credits I still forgot it was her when she appeared), who’s a hostess, you know, in that Donna Reed “From Here To Eternity” sorta way. They speak periodically throughout the film, whispering sweet lovelies that seem based more on what could be than what is. She, at least, has the self-awareness to admit her lot in life; Curtis, the more we get to know him, might not.
“Mississippi Grind” is not about the poker games, which are actually few and far between, and rendered virtually the same way over and over, with big pots and big hands and a victory or a defeat. Playing poker is so much about behavior, reading and acting on it; Gerry, in fact, religiously listens to audio tapes instructing how to ferret out opposing players’ telltale signs and those tells are applicable less at the card table then in scenes of the two men interacting. Slowly, bit by bit, along this journey down the interstate, as if Gerry’s beater is Huck Finn’s raft, each guy pulls back layers of the other, allowing the whole person to bloom.
A litany of card-playing movies conditions you to expect that this story can’t be on the up and up, that some terrible moment of reckoning, some fatal blow, either for Gerry or Curtis, or both, awaits. But Boden and Fleck have more humanity in them than that. They infuse this story and these characters with a strange, almost ridiculous, amount of hope, every crazed bet not coming to resemble another stepping stone to darkness but one more shot at redemption. If that sounds naïve, or even irresponsible, well, it kind of is, and the film doesn’t exactly skimp on it. “I’m not a good person,” Gerry says in the wake of something truly awful. You believe him. But you also believe that with just one stroke of luck maybe, just maybe, he could turn it around. That’s why Curtis can’t cut loose of him.
There is an impeccable shot of the two men at dusk, sharply dressed, imbibing cocktails, about to hop a riverboat, as if momentarily they are stepping back in time, with St. Louis’s Arch looming in the background, that architectural symbol of a gateway to something better. Maybe something better waits for these two new friends. Maybe not. Not that it matters. This shot is the best version of Gerry and Curtis, a version which surfaces, then recedes, surfaces, then recedes, over and over. The end, which comes across both improbable and entirely earned, cuts both ways. It believes in the pot of gold at end of the rainbow. That doesn’t mean it’s really there.