Even when they lack blood, guts, slashers, or ghouls, some movies feature topics that can serve as their own brand of horror. Often, this horror derives from versions of the human condition that are both extreme, and yet frighteningly common and all too relatable.
The premise of Mississippi Grind starring Ryan Reynolds and soon to enter Tarantino-land, Ben Mendelsohn is a basic one:
Gambling is fun. Until, it’s not.
When Gerry (Mendelsohn) meets Curtis (Reynolds) at a poker table, the two men need only a glance to identify the other’s deep love for the rush of a win. Whether it’s the flip of the right river card, the fall of the dice to hit a pass number, or the horse with the worst odds breaking across the finish line, Curtis and Gerry love gambling. They form a fast friendship bonding over the gambling highs and lows of their lives and the characters they’ve met along the way.
Despite their shared love of gambling, it soon becomes clear that each man loves gambling in a very different way. For all the laughs and thrills of winning that Gerry shares with Curtis as they follow the Mississippi down to New Orleans, his focus is never on the fun, but on the fulfillment he seeks with each dealt hand. Every decision Gerry makes is fueled by his addiction, from the positive decision of befriending Curtis, to the desperate and shameful ways in which he seeks his bankroll for the next hand. There are moments when Gerry revels in the fun of gambling, but ultimately, his next choice is always based in his addiction to it, rather than his enjoyment of it.
Contrarily, Curtis’ affinity for gambling has nothing to do with addiction. In fact, for much of the movie, his awareness and understanding of Gerry’s problem hints that Curtis has an advanced sense of self control that allows him to be above addiction. His confidence carries him with ease through every interaction with all types of people, and ultimately, is the foundation for his luck, which Gerry so desires. And yet, as Curtis unfolds his own character, he reveals a sort of addiction of his own. As much as Gerry needs to play the next hand, Curtis needs to move. His addiction is to find the next thrill life will offer him, which despite yielding positive experiences, is based in his inability to trust. The risk he easily accepts in gambling, he refuses to take in relationships or stability. In some moments, the pain of his addiction flows into his eyes the same way Gerry’s need to gamble shows in his own.
It a tribute to the script and performances that Mississippi Grind manages to blend the thrill and terror of gambling so seamlessly. The story never loses site of the dangerous risks that both men consistently take on their journey, but it also allows them to have joy as human beings, namely through their friendship. Though each is plagued by his addiction, neither is fully defined by it either, and their friendship hints at the individuals each man would still be without their addiction. Replete with moments of terror at the choices that are made, and even more so at the compulsion our lead characters have to make those choices, Mississippi Grind is also full of moments that celebrate life and friendship.
Where each man arrives at the end of the Mississippi River is potentially up for debate. Gerry’s gambling addiction potentially yields a more predictable story, though through Mendelsohn’s ability to harness each moment for his character’s growth, the journey feels fresh and full of possibility. Curtis’ journey seems destined for greatness, if not just based on Reynold’s charm and confidence, and yet once we realize that Curtis isn’t necessarily as free as he seems, but bound to endlessly ramble, his conclusion feels murky. Mississippi Grind is indeed about addiction, but less about overcoming it and more about the lives within it. Most persons struggling with an addiction will say that however many years of recovery, they are still addicts. In a way, it’s unlikely that either man is changed at the end of the film, but rather, like the audience, they are enriched by the experiences they shared, both riveting in the heights of a win and devastating in the throes of a horrific loss. Their identities don’t exist in their outcomes, because even after the credits roll, there’s always another hand to play and bet to place whether in a casino or in life’s choices. Identity is crafted not in conclusion, but in the grind.