It’s a sly, sinuous, steamy trip down the Mississippi in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Mississippi Grind, a not-so-buddy film with a road that doesn’t end and a trip that never truly happens. When middle-aged gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) meets younger traveler Curtis (Ryan Reynolds, applying his smarmy world-weariness better than he ever has) in Iowa, the two hit it off on a boozy, woozy gambling venture with a destination in New Orleans. But it’s the journey that matters, right?
For the directors, the journey has certainly been sturdy and well-practiced, if not always as risky or revelatory . For the first time in ages, however, he seems to have picked up not only a new story to tell on his hitchhiking venture, but a new style or demeanor to tell it in. The real gem of this picture is Fleck and Boden’s maturation into aesthetic stylists, or at least extraordinarily effective aesthetic mimics. Most of their features thus far have been marinated indifferently in the modern lo-fi indie haze of pseudo-hand-held camerawork, flaunting an unearned grit, and close-ups that stress the singular alienation of the protagonists. Mississippi Grind, however, is learned in a different school, that of the post-industrial American malaise, class of circa ’76. And if it doesn’t necessarily have a favorite teacher, it undoubtedly took a class or two from Robert Altman.
All the tells are present and accounted for. An improvisational, character-focused, freewheeling, almost drunken edge accompanied by a ramshackle narrative in no hurry to hurry on to the next signpost when it can simply bask in its characters. An emphasis on low-slung, lingering wide shots that situate the characters within their environments rather than dogmatically sequestering characters into the center of frames to present their bits of character or narrative before the camera cuts to the next important figure. A humming chaos of everyday dialogue wafting into and out of the frame, evoking a lived-in, shambling America where characters live in a stew of impressionistic moments rather than a more streamlined, concise narrative.
All of which invokes a complex, faded portrait of forlorn American spaces with characters walking into and out of frames and the camera slowly, sinuously divulging cherished bits of unstated information in the deliberate yet ramshackle way it zooms between characters as power dynamics shift. All of which also, miraculously, feels unforced and easy-going rather than overdetermined and authoritarian. Andrej Parekh lenses the film in a tone of unfussed, abandoned Americana, and even the blooze music is of the more plain-spoken, melancholy variety than, say, the over-bearing white-boy “look at how I’m feeling these notes” shenanigans so popular with revivalist hipsters these days.
Perhaps the unforced demeanor is a gift bestowed on the film by the fact that it doesn’t actually take place in the 1970s, a tacit reminder that so many of those esteemed ’70s New Hollywood films took place more in a lost space of the American imagination rather than at any specific point in time. Mississippi Grind feels of that spirit without having to indulge in a parade of “spot the reference” visual markers of a specific time period. Which is fitting, as the film is more about lost time than time found.
Mississippi Grind follows the model of its spiritual precursor, Altman’s California Split, in that it is no highs-and-lows gambling thriller. Instead, it’s a shooting-the-shit comedy conversation piece between a never-better Mendelsohn and a revelatory Reynolds where each verbal bait-and-switch underscores the creeping despondency and loneliness kept at bay by one more feigned verbal interplay. The good-natured comedy of the piece is tinged with despair and a realization that each line of dialogue only serves to keep the characters from spending too much time rattling around in their own battered brains engaged in uncomfortable dialectics with their own inner angst.
This double-sided loquaciousness is especially true for Reynolds’ motor-mouth Curtis, who delights in rattling off tales of adventures with correspondents in the past. His cock-eyed sliminess implies the lie behind every word, but hints of a sadder truth unfurl throughout the film. It may be that each half-constructed character Curtis casually slides into his daily conversations is based in truth, but Curtis was never around in their lives long enough to leave a lasting impression. He’s picked up a murderer’s row of characters, of American myths, but no real life to string them around.
There’s a sincerity to the grind that takes over the picture like another day at the tables: not flashily hitting us with the sledgehammer of a seizure-inducing gambler’s high but instead coasting with the unhurried mixture of slow-cooked, backwoods bayou melancholy and swampy stuck-in-the-mud character stagnancy. Fleck and Boden specialize in character in the truest sense of the word, not striving to help these people along their way or ask them to learn something or fulfill an arc toward the proverbial pot of thematic gold at the end of the rainbow. Instead, Gerry and Curtis would rather sit back and look on, noticing the rainbow on their path toward one last indeterminate hope. After all, the rainbow may be all they have, and questing after it only risks finding out there’s nothing waiting for them there. Forget American Hustle, Argo, et al; this is the real throwback ’70s cinema, with dueling dispositions of scruffy diffuseness and dispossession complementing and redefining each other.