Mucking with Movies: ‘Mississippi Grind’

Travel, luck, and hating yourself

Jack Simon
Mucking with Movies
Jack Simon
Jack Simon

I begged off seeing “The Nun II,” so my almighty editor let me do a streaming movie. I picked one of my desert island five movies — hooray for everybody.

The first time I saw “Mississippi Grind,” it was my freshman year at NYU, and I had convinced this kid, Ethan, to come with me. He was, and still is, the smartest person I know when it comes to movies. At the time, though, he thought I was an insufferable, bro-ish tool with my slicked-back hair, intensive ski background, and penchant for obnoxious incessant swearing. I was so taken with him I messaged him on Facebook every week to see a movie with me until he agreed. Today, he’s my best friend from my mostly forgotten time in New York, and I still talk about this movie with him.

Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the same pair who would go on to direct “Captain Marvel” four years later, deliver this road trip poker movie with truthful depravity. They start their quest at a sixty-dollar buy-in tournament in an Iowan casino, where Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) steers Gerald (Ben Mendelsohn) away from the cheap bourbon and spots him a Woodford. Certainly, there have been better catalysts for bonding — but not many. They take off together, and the adventure quickly takes a downturn. Gerald’s life is supported by one lie after another where he borrows and gambles, he loses or he wins long enough to make the inevitable loss all that much worse. There’s no romance to it; it is only grey and pitiful. It juxtaposes Curtis’ self-mythologizing, constantly concocting anecdotes to get his foot in the door of wherever he’s headed next. He’s killing time in his own life and more interested in playing with the lives of the vagabonds he meets than with chips.

Fleck and Boden work to suck the falsities out of the silly things we fantasize over as Americans — gambling, life on the road, the up-and-downs that are made possible only by our zealous devotion to freedom. A movie made with wonderment and infused with sadness, the directing pair intelligently stay out of the way of their story, preferring to frame each shot with just enough lived-in reality you forget you’re watching anything at all.

In the position as the film’s lynchpin, Reynolds delivers playing Curtis with stunning cunning-ness as the best work he has ever achieved. Not a word nor a look occurs where he isn’t endearing or garnering sorrow. But he buoys the character with an elemental scummy edge, making evident who he is at the core. By my count, Curtis tells the truth about himself all of one time. His buddy Gerry’s loss is so inevitable that all you have to do is wait. Mendelson plays him as entirely pathetic and apathetic, not until the end does he ever find a light to shine that reveals himself to be anything but the most degenerate waste of life. Most scripts will drop a clue that maybe, possibly, this protagonist is more than the story is giving them credit for but never not once is he painted with a redeemable stroke. It’s a bold choice — most people don’t want to watch invulnerable scumbags, but I think it speaks to something awful inside all of us.

When Ethan and I circle back to this movie, most often we reference the ending and our endless debate over it. Is Curtis making an inspiring push with that devilish glint in his eye, or is he truly stuck forever? A Sisyphus doomed to shoulder the boulder of empty potential and promises up the hill again and again. It hits close to home, which is why I settle on him relishing in this great purpose of trying to understand life’s unknown journey. I’ve spent my adult life driving around seeing almost every state, and it’s been a hoot. Along the way, I’ve neglected friendships, my family, and any inkling of normalcy. I consider myself one of the luckiest people alive; I just don’t know if luck is worth it. Or if I’m right in taking advantage of it.

Fleck and Boden, Reynolds, and Mendelson together push that idea as the film’s main theme. Goodness, like luck, is indecipherable. It fluctuates too wildly for anybody to determine its existence. Watch the flick, and determine answers about virtue and fortune for yourself. Maybe you’ll learn something personal you didn’t want to know.

Critic score: 9.6/10 Streaming on MAX/HBO

Jack Simon is a mogul coach and writer/director who enjoys eating food he can’t afford, traveling to places out of his budget, and creating art about skiing, eating, and traveling while broke. Check out his website to see his Jack’s Jitney travelogue series. You can email him at for inquiries of any type.

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