Who’s the Loser?

Mississippi Grind  A Film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), one of two protagonists in the gambling/road trip/buddy movie Mississippi Grind, seems to be the man that Zhuangzi was talking about with the concept wu weiAfter an early encounter over a poker game with Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), he claims he does well at gambling because he doesn’t care whether he wins or not.  (“Bullshit!” Gerry immediately responds.)  But that seems to be true.  His game, he says, is darts (darts?), and he can throw the dart backwards over his head and still hit the target.  Early in the film, he picks a huge longshot at the dog track because he likes the dog’s name, and when he brings Gerry in on the action, and the dog wins, he starts to convince him, and to convince us.  Whether he wants to win or not, he’s got something.  Charisma, or luck, or something.  It’s hard to put your finger on just what.

Gerry has loser written all over him.  When we first meet him he’s listening to an endless tape about how to read body language, and apparently he listens to it constantly when he’s in his car.  His own body language isn’t the best, and though he stays reasonably cool in a poker game, he’s got an air of desperation (not that he’s the only one.  The whole crowd looks desperate).  It’s when he wins at the dog track that we see his real problem.  He won!  But he kicks himself that he only bet on the dog to place.  And as soon as he wins the pot in any game he can’t take delight in it, or have the good sense to take the money and run, as Curtis would.  He has this haunted look in his eyes as if he has to bet it again.  It’s as if he wants to lose.  He has to keep betting.

We see him when he meets with his bookie (Alfre Woodard, when we were expecting somebody more like Samuel L. Jackson with an attitude).  She seems understanding when he claims he was robbed, rather than that he subsequently lost his winnings (both things are true; a robber came at him with a knife because he thought he had money), but she also isn’t happy, and wants the money tomorrow, not next week.  We find out eventually—he admits as much to Curtis—that he owes money all over town.  His plan—there’s always a plan, and it always involves more gambling—is to make everything he needs at a big poker tournament in New Orleans.  The entry fee alone is $25,000, and the man has nothing, but he figures he can get in on some action on the way down and make the money he needs.  We hear that and think: not in a million years.

So why would Curtis, who seems to have a head on his shoulders, and looks like a good judge of character, and always picks a winner, stake Gerry to $2,000 and take the trip with him?  That’s the central mystery of Mississippi Grind.

My wife hated this  movie, despite the fact that it traveled through the South, which she loves, despite the fact that it has a fantastic soundtrack of blues and rhythm and blues, which she also loves, despite the fact that the acting was superb, the writing was great, and the direction first rate (one of my favorite things was that, every time they came into a new town, they showed every lowlife bar and eatery in the place, even if they didn’t figure into the action at all).  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known for the wrestling movie Half Nelson and the baseball movie Sugar—both excellent Indy films—seem to have taken the love of sport into the outer reaches of competition (darts?).

But the reason my wife hated the movie was that it’s about a bunch of helpless addicts, essentially pathetic people, and she felt it didn’t transcend that subject matter.  Every time you walk into one of these gambling places, you might as well be walking into an opium den.  I would almost say taking opium is more worthwhile.  Addiction seems to be everywhere I look these days, and I admit it seems wrong to be entertained by watching people flush their lives down the toilet.  On the other hand, are these people more addicted than Steve Jobs, a movie she very much wants to see?  Are the only interesting movies about the winners?  (Why can’t we have a movie about a guy who dropped out of college to do a start-up and totally fucked up?)

There was a gambling craze when I was in high school; all of a sudden guys were betting on football games, pool games, flipping quarters in the bus on the way out.  I lost $10 in a bet that seemed to be an absolutely sure thing (Sonny Liston over Cassius Clay, which of course sounds stupid now, but the man was a huge favorite), and I vowed never to make a bet again.  I believe I’ve kept that vow.  I could have bought three Ray Charles albums with that money, or two of the Scribner Hemingway novels (the two things I was collecting at the time).  I hated that I threw that money away.

So I understand the addiction to gambling only metaphorically.  I’m an addict; I just don’t happen to be addicted to that.  I admit it’s cruel to watch people who are helplessly addicted to an action that is going to screw their lives over.  But all movies are like that.  Life is like that.  I found the scenes of these guys boozing at least as uneasy as their gambling.  I also, frankly, trust these filmmakers.  Their movies are character based, and not sensational.

Not too far into the road trip, these guys wander into some kind of riverboat gambling establishment, and knock on what seems to be the dressing room for some kind of floor show.  Curtis is his incredibly charming self, and it turns out he knows these women; one is his girlfriend.  He and Gerry have come to freshen up, and to pick up some appropriate clothes, and the women are fine with the guys dressing right there.  It turns out they’re prostitutes.  They’re absolutely gorgeous, every one (if there’s an unrealistic aspect to the movie, that’s it).  We see Curtis in a prolonged encounter with his girlfriend.  We see Gerry with another woman (who would certainly have gone to bed with him, as Curtis later points out.  She likes him.  She had also seen him win a big pot of money).  In those two scenes we see who those men really are.  And that, I would say, is what this movie is about, and why it transcends the sleazy milieu.

Gerry is a man who has seriously fucked up, whose wife obviously left him because of his gambling (he stole from her, among other charming behaviors); he hasn’t seen his daughter in years, hasn’t—as his wife points out—kept up with her, sent her even a birthday card.  Yet he loves those people, or at least loved them (his wife has remarried).  There’s a scene late in the movie where Curtis is screaming to his girlfriend over a cell phone, “I love you.  Do you hear me?  I love you,” but we don’t believe it for a minute.  Neither, I’m quite sure, does she.  Her put-down of him in that long encounter on the boat is something to behold.

It would be a crime against nature to reveal the ending of this move, as much of a crime as to reveal the ending of The Cincinnati Kid, my previous favorite gambling movie.  Now this one is.  I’ll just say the ending is unexpected, and startling, and both men react in character, showing us who they are.  Mississippi Grind leaves various incidental questions up in the air, but not the most important ones, and not—for me—the one I’ve asked with my title.  Curtis, I think, is addicted to his own charm.  That seems worse than the guys doing scratch cards at the local Mini Mart.