Over the years, A24 has produced mostly excellent “independent” films like Ex Machina, Waves, and Uncut Gems (as well as a whole lot more I haven’t seen yet, including Good Time, The Lighthouse, Midsommar, It Comes At Night… I could go on and on), which has lead to me trusting them as a provider of the most unique voices in cinema today. Whenever something has their name on it, I’m almost always excited to see it, even if it doesn’t actually turn out to be that good (I’m looking at you, While We’re Young).
Their distributive collaborations with DirecTV Cinema (an AT&T company, of all things), however, have admittedly looked far less promising. Although I haven’t seen either of them yet, features like The Hole in the Ground and Low Tide (both from 2019) resemble standard “direct-to-video” fare more than what you’d expect from such a consistently great studio. So count me surprised that Mississippi Grind, a gambling drama/road flick starring Ryan Reynolds, is actually a really good movie, despite also coming from said partnership.
Reynolds plays Curtis Vaughn, a lively young gambler who’s not above getting hammered at the nearest bar, or betting way too much on a casual game of poker. He may also be the ticket out of debt for Gerry, a struggling older gambler and real estate agent who runs into Curtis at a casino in Dubuque, Iowa. They strike up an instant friendship, and, after Gerry’s loan sharks start closing in on him, ultimately head down the Mississippi River to win big in New Orleans.
Now, you may be thinking “Wait, I’ve seen a lot of this before.” And admittedly, you wouldn’t be wrong. However, what Mississippi Grind may lack in originality is made up for by how compellingly written and sharply acted it is. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck make a great writing/directing team together, and although their big-budget Captain Marvel got some very split reactions, it’s safe to say that they still have more good things ahead of them in the future.
In other hands, Gerry might have just been a typical “shady” dude, a scheming, crooked hustler who’s always rushing to pay off everybody around him, but can never get enough of those sweet, sweet gambling thrills. And yes, he definitely does fit that last category here, but he’s also weary, burned-out, and shown to carry a surprising amount of emotional baggage, including an ex-wife and estranged young daughter. Even when trying to reconcile with the former, he can’t help attempting to loot a few wads of cash from her sock drawer.
Curtis, as it turns out, has some personal troubles too (also involving money, of course—in one scene, he inexplicably lies to some other debtors by saying he doesn’t have any cash for them, and gets beaten up by them because of that), but he’s jovial, upbeat, and almost even a voice of reason for the wayward Gerry. Reynolds brings so much charm and personality to this charismatic, freelancing loner that he’s boundlessly entertaining to watch, as are the misadventures he and Gerry inevitably find themselves in.
And here’s another way Mississippi Grind deviates from the stale formula suggested by its premise. Unlike most standard “road movies” (a genre I really do like, admittedly), there aren’t any silly pratfalls or juvenile stereotypes. Rather, the humor is far more cleverly dialogue-driven, and the Southern atmosphere is a warm, respectful one, lit up by striking neon colors and infused with groovy folk music.
So why did audiences largely stay home for this movie (it cost $5 million to make, but only took in $422K, unfortunately), and give it negative reviews on sites like Rotten Tomatoes? Well, besides the slower pace and looser story, they also took issue with the fact that Curtis and Gerry apparently “learned nothing” at the end of their journey.
To be sure, the film’s conclusion is a positive one (even if Gerry’s next step is surprisingly left ambiguous), but it strikes no false notes, and doesn’t suddenly give the leads a forced “crisis of conscience”, as those RT users clearly wanted. If it had, the result would have been thoroughly disingenuous, no matter which way you frame it. And really, what would be the use of that?