Mississippi Grind begins with a static shot of a rainbow over a farm. The rainbow seems to get a little brighter over the course of a few seconds. Then we cut to black before being introduced to Gerry, a down on his luck gambler in Iowa. Gerry sits in his car listening to an audiotape called “200 Poker Tells” by Joe Navarro.
Gerry seems calm and collected, but this is very much a calculated and effortful appearance.
At the poker table Gerry meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a charismatic and talkative man who just likes people. Whereas Gerry keeps a safe, albeit polite, distance from his fellow gamblers, Curtis engages them. As Curtis later tells Gerry, he doesn’t care if he wins or loses. This is in stark contrast to Gerry who needs to win each night.
The problem is that he doesn’t.
Gerry owes money and he’s a lonesome figure in a small town. He’s the image of gambling gone wrong, but we just don’t realize it yet.
The basic story is this: Curtis hangs around, makes a few bets with Gerry, and they have moderate success. Gerry believes Curtis to be his lucky charm. This is further reinforced when Curtis leaves one night and Gerry gets stabbed. Gerry thinks it’s some sort of sign, and he has only troubles at home in Iowa.
So Curtis and Gerry decide to gamble their way down to New Orleans, planning on hitting up a $25,000 high stakes game of poker. Neither person has anything keeping them in town or anywhere.
We learn that Curtis has hitched along with gamblers like Gerry before, and we know that it hasn’t worked out. Curtis is the benefactor, enabling people like Gerry. He even gives Gerry $2,000 to get started. Gerry bets on cards, Curtis bets on people.
It’s unclear who Curtis is or what he does. All we know is he travels around, never staying long in one location. Like Gerry trying to hide his “tell” at a poker table, Curtis tries to maintain the mystery of who he is, never revealing too much information.
As the story progresses, Gerry begins to unravel. The image of the cool and collected gambler disappears as he becomes more manic and desperate while his bets don’t work out. It even nearly bottoms out when he visits his ex-wife under the guise of winning her back only to try to steal money from her sock drawer.
Curtis’ and Gerry’s relationship begins to sour as Curtis realizes that Gerry has lied to him about previous winnings. Curtis’ bet isn’t looking too great.
In a quiet scene in a motel, Gerry notices that Curtis is missing a pinky toe and asks what happened. Curtis explains that as a child he ran over his sister’s foot with a lawn mower when she wouldn’t get out of his way, despite him issuing a clear-cut warning. As punishment, Curtis’ grandfather removed one of his toes, though it’s unclear through what means.
Later in the story, at a horse race, Gerry loses all his money. Curtis gives him one last $100 bill for a bus ticket and tells him “this is how it has to end.” Gerry, ever the addict, can’t see it end this way. Earlier in the film he remarks that “some guys are just born to lose,” but he still can’t see him as one of these people.
They briefly go their separate ways. Ultimately they reunite at the casino. Gerry has started to win a little, and it culminates with them winning half a million dollars. There is no rhyme or reason to this. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
The next morning they go their separate ways for good, each a little better off than before (and rich).
The final shot of the film is Gerry sitting in his own car (which he had sold when he lost all his money) when he could’ve bought any on the lot. He listens to “200 Poker Tells” as the reflection of the American flag fluttering in the wind hovers over his face.
Both characters, throughout the film, seem to be living on the edge. Their lives are unsustainable: Curtis has no home and Gerry is always on the verge of losing it all due to his crippling gambling habits.
Anytime one or both of the characters is elated and excited, it feels to be more a product of desperation than real happiness.
But there’s something about gambling and the idea that you’re always so close to hitting it big that feels optimistic. It’s very American to be optimistic. We are told that we can have it all if we put the work in, and the American flag at the end seems to suggest that there are success stories like this in America, but at the same time the ending hints at an underlying absurdity to our belief that we can be that success story.
Throughout this film Gerry is in a pit. He’s the opposite of a winner. He even says he’s not a good guy, referring to trying to steal money from his ex-wife and not ever visiting his daughter. And at the same time, he’s the one that wins.
We don’t aspire to be like Gerry. We are told to do just about the exact opposite of what he does. We’re not even supposed to want to be like Curtis, but many of us do. This point is emphasized with the casting of Ryan Reynolds and his easy-going charisma.
Curtis is the image of the lonesome cowboy, drifting from town to town, only we follow him from town to town rather than watching him drift through like everyone else in his life.
There is an out for Curtis, however, and her name is Simone. She is a woman in St. Louis whom he has had a previous relationship with. He tries to convince her to accompany him on the road, and, later as he and Gerry are about to win big in the casino, he tells her he loves her. It feels like a big breakthrough, but the next morning she calls Curtis back only for him to ignore the call and get out of the bed he’s shared with an unnamed and barely seen prostitute. He hasn’t changed.
The real victory for Curtis, however, is that Gerry won. Curtis’ internal guilt is briefly alleviated by someone he helped fix, almost inexplicably. It’s not just that Curtis bet on Gerry and Gerry won him a lot of money. It’s more that Curtis has seen some change within Gerry.
The night they win the half-million dollars, while sitting down with champagne and lobster, Gerry instead asks for a burger. When Curtis asks him what he’ll do next, Gerry explains that he wants to do something nice for Wendy, his daughter. This is all to show that Gerry longs for home and something within himself, who he used to be.
When Curtis wakes up the morning after their big win, he notices that Gerry has left, and he is visibly concerned that the money might be gone with him. Instead, Gerry left Curtis’ half behind as well as a friendly note, suggesting that Gerry is going to turn his life around.
Throughout the story Curtis has told Gerry of gamblers he used to know who lost it all and didn’t heed his advice. Gerry appears to have finally heard Curtis’ warning and cashed out at the right time.
So Gerry has changed and Curtis is hopeful. He’s still the same person with the same problems, but he’s just a little more optimistic and sometimes that’s enough.
This film was co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. It was released in January 2015 (usually a wasteland for movie releases).
Suggested companion film: Croupier (1998), Clive Owen plays a writer turned croupier (the dealer at a poker table), and his life begins to unravel.