It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The poster for "Mississippi Grind" might as well have a "40th anniversary!" logo. It feels so much like a lost American drama from 1975 (the year of "Nashville," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Shampoo") that the filmmakers could've gone ahead and set it in the period and outfitted the actors with wide lapel shirts and pants with flared legs. This story of two losers gambling their way across America is a nostalgia act in the best way: it brings back aesthetic values that certain American filmmakers, writers and actors of the '70s embodied brilliantly and could showcase on a grand stage, because at that time the cinematic marketplace still allowed small-scaled films about people living small-scaled lives to get national theatrical releases, and serious attention, rather than dumping them to one or two theaters plus DVD or iTunes. There are even cameos by James Toback—who wrote and directed the 1974 version of "The Gambler," a film to which "Mississippi Grind" owes a debt—and by Warren Beatty's Nixon-era hairdo, which is perched atop costar Ben Mendelsohn's furtively bowed head.
"Mississippi Grind" is co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind the similarly '70s-influenced "Half Nelson" and "Sugar." It's bracing in its simplicity. It's a character portrait, period. It's just about psychology and the rhythms of friendship. It starts in Dubuque, Iowa, in the middle of a card game, where a quiet and recessive-seeming man named Gerry (Mendelsohn) first meets a newcomer in town, Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), who has a knack for holding court. He keeps offering to buy Gerry a round of top-shelf whiskey and is so annoyed when Gerry refuses (out of pride, he insists on switching his order to a cheap brand) that he goes back on his promise to pay.
Fate seems to want these two men to become friends, and they do become friends, but their relationship reveals itself as something other than what we expect. Curtis has all the outward trappings of a self-destructive but magnetic flake, the kind of man who'd be thought of as a star within his own little community; Gerry seems every inch the put-upon, reactive "loser" character, the guy who'll go along with Curtis' wild schemes and end up regretting it. Aiding the '70s vibe: there are moments where Reynolds' looks and sounds like he could be Richard Dreyfuss' brawny chatterbox of a kid brother, while Mendelsohn's croaky voice and anxious eyes evoke Dustin Hoffman.
But within a matter of minutes we've started to get a handle on what's really going on. Curtis actually has, for a hedonistic, gambling, basically rootless drifter, decent judgment. He knows when to quit drinking and quit playing, when not to sleep with one of the many women who find him attractive. He is more or less as he presents himself, he seems to know himself better than Gerry, and in time his concern for Gerry seems borne out of real affection and empathy, not some sinister ulterior motive. He's made a new friend and wants his new friend to be happy. That's it.