We had not heard from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck since 2010's It's Kind of a Funny Story, but when Mississippi Grind popped up out of nowhere, we took our chance to see it. (It ran for one week, one late showing every day, but perhaps that's for Oscar consideration. It's actual release date is listed as being in September.)
The story is simple enough: Gambler on the brink Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn, The Place Beyond The Pines, Killing Them Softly) meets devil-may-care Curtis (Ryan Reynolds, Woman In Gold, Green Lantern, Adventureland) and they hit it off. Gerry, who's a very good poker player, though uptight, has a very good night, and (in the way of gamblers) associates Curtis with good luck.
There is a genre of film about magical people: The sort of folks who come into our lives and seem to make everything better, interesting, more lively, just by being around. In a traditional narrative, this is typically centered around a character arc like, to take a very literal example, Mary Poppins helping to bring Mr. Banks around. Or, presumably, Bagger Vance, though I didn't see that one.
They don't have to be literally magic, of course. There's a much exploited sitcom cliché where a visiting uncle or aunt provides the necessary arc. The recent Judy Moody movie has this plot in the form of Aunt Heather Graham, for a non-literally magic example.
The beauty of this film is that it teases that genre. You think Gerry's gonna have his life turned around by Curtis, so successful he is when the two are together. And Curtis is the sort of guy who gambles for fun—so, naturally, caring not about the money, he wins all the time. Gerry on the other hand, gambles to solve his problems—which he then creates more of by gambling more.
But the problem with that genre is that it gives short-shrift to the magical person. They're not really real. They can't be real, because real people have complicated, messy lives, and showing that is not part of the genre.
So when our boys go on their road trip down the mighty Mississip', and their close quarters reveal an insight into Curtis' life, and his issues, it's quite a refreshing turn.
We might have just had a good character study here, a buddy picture, a road flick, and Reynolds and Mendelsohn have enough chemistry to have pulled something like that off, but in addition to that, we also have the most suspenseful film of the year. Sure, normally you think of suspense in a thriller or action flick, but here the stakes are infinitely higher: Are these guys gonna pull their heads out of their asses and get their lives together?
You just don't know. The last act is so full of moments where the story could end. They literally could've stopped it anywhere from the beginning of the third act: Ending at any of the sequences would've had a different impact. And you really don't know if you're going to get one of these bleak stories where everyone ends up dead, or a silly happy one where they all end up millionaires.
I'm not used to being surprised in movies—even though I'm actually pretty easy to surprise if you're not hard-wired into a genre, like with the superhero stuff—but I did not see the ending coming. Not because it was out of the blue, but because each character had to make a pivotal decision that could've gone any number of ways.
That's quality writing, right there. You're rooting for the characters, who are deeply, deeply flawed, in borderline criminal ways, and the movie leads you up to an understanding how they work, such that you care how they choose, even though the two main choices (continue down a destructive road, or get your life together) are both in character.
We were on the edge of our seats, no joke.
Anyway, this is supposed to get a real release in September. I hope it does well. It would be worthy of writing/acting Oscars.
Also? Great music. Just great. But you were expecting that, I hope.