There’s an unusual quality to Mississippi Grind; it keeps you thinking that something major is going to happen, but it never does, really. Things just go along in the same way, with nothing much changing—certainly not the two main characters. There are little surprises in the way characters might react, but not in any significant way, and these are often inconsistent with the reactors’ personality. Gerry (Mendelsohn) is a compulsive gambler and small town crook in Iowa. He meets Curtis (Reynolds) who is passing through town at a poker game. They strike up a friendship that is mystifying since there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful connection between them. They both love gambling, but their styles are different, and Curtis’s is much more mature. Lying does come easily for both, though.
The very superstitious Gerry gets it into his head that Curtis is his “lucky charm” and that the two of them should go on a gambling trip together, so they head down the Mississippi River to New Orleans for a big poker game, going through St. Louis and Memphis, taking a detour to Little Rock, then when that doesn’t turn out so well, they continue on their route to New Orleans. All the while, we are privy to their winnings and losses (the latter mostly Gerry’s), transitory relationships with women, and petty shenanigans.
About the only times the movie seems to have substance is when the two men have heart-to-heart talks with Curtis trying to talk sense into Gerry, and Gerry owning up to some of his failings. Brief scenes with an ex-wife and mother do a good job in shedding light on how the two men came to be the way they are. It also paints a clear (sordid) picture of gambling addiction, and how compelled those who have it the worst remain in its thrall. They rely on magical thinking, lie about their losses, and always believe that the next bet will be the big win. Aptly, there is a vivid rainbow scene in the opening frame, and rainbows crop up again from time to time as a metaphor.
The strongest asset of the film is the acting skill of Mendelsohn and Reynolds, the former capturing the sleaze and is the epitome of a compulsive gambler and shyster and the latter smooth, charming, and intelligent—but also prey to the gambling habit. Another strong point is the bluesy music (Scott Bomar) that identifies place so exquisitely.
On the other hand, I felt that much of the story simply doesn’t make sense, particularly why Curtis would stay with Gerry for so long. Curtis is a drifter, and clearly gets annoyed and impatient with Gerry, so what is there that makes him loyal to him? Two unexpected events at the end don’t make sense the way the story and the characters have been drawn. They imply there has been both vindication and rehabilitation, but there is nothing that has happened before that would support either.
A tedious road movie with gamblers.