Just as last year’s Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg, was a rework of the 1974 version starring James Caan, this year’s Mississippi Grind appears to be a rework, if not a remake, of Robert Altman’s 1974 California Split. Altman’s movie paired a hapless compulsive gambler (George Segal) with a whimsical compadre (Elliot Gould). Likewise, Mississippi Grind pairs a down-on-his-luck serial gambler (Ben Mendelsohn) with a fanciful, womanizing bro (Ryan Reynolds).
From the setup to specific scenarios and characters—a basketball game, a mugging, a duo of effervescent prostitutes—Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson), who co-wrote and co-directed Mississippi Grind, use Altman’s story as a schematic, right down to the climax and resolution. They retain some of the strong qualities of Altman’s classic: the chatter circulating a poker table as freely as tobacco smoke; idle banter at a bar—here the discussion of the Seven Dwarfs is replaced by talk of rainbows and leprechauns and Toto. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh gracefully captures the interactions between Reynolds and Mendelsohn, who perform charmingly, wearing their Mutt and Jeff archetypes like fitted sweaters. Unfolding slowly, Mississippi Grind is a road movie with a destination, though Reynolds’s character repeatedly asserts, “the journey is the destination.”
Despite the similarities, Altman’s movie wasn’t a road movie, and he used music sparingly, whereas Fleck and Boden generously score their drama with the blues. In terms of absorbing the audience in the game—in California Split the game was five card draw, in Mississippi Grind it’s Texas hold ’em—Fleck and Boden outdo Altman, especially through an amusing audio tutorial about spotting players’ tells. But, where Fleck and Boden explain, Altman simply shows, not caring whether we know the jargon. Altman’s vision is hard-boiled, his men are unmoored by anything like love; they are myopic, obsessed, febrile, like rabid dogs frothing at the sight of any “action” they can bet on. Though the endings of Mississippi Grind and California Split are nearly identical, the resolution of Altman’s movie is laconic—he keeps his cards close to his chest; Boden and Fleck, on the contrary, stretch out the resolution, flashing their hand.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White