Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, about a charismatic poker player determined to change his luck, is inspired by the energy and characters the writer-director team found while making their previous movie in Iowa.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were living in Iowa making their second film Sugar when road movie Mississippi Grind was conceived. Fleck remembers a poker room separated from the main casino by glass and recalls watching the games with interest, not understanding the rules but eager to learn them.
Boden says the pair started to go to a local riverboat casino while shooting Sugar, a film about a Dominican baseball player in Iowa, where they became fascinated by what they saw. This wasn’t like the glamorous gambling meccas of Las Vegas but a place for seasoned local players to frequent, playing classic games from slots to blackjack and, of course, poker. The two filmmakers found their interest piqued by the various characters they saw there.
Fleck began to learn the game of poker, spending his free time going up and down the Mississippi river getting to know other players as well as the rules of popular forms such as Texas Hold’em. The fact Mississippi Grind somewhat ignores the spectacle of the casino as seen in, for example, Martin Scorsese’s Casino, it gives it a unique aesthetic that focuses on the characters and why they’re gambling.
Fleck told USA Today the casinos he spent time researching were “dark, divey little places” unlike what you typically see in Vegas. He saw people “either grinding out a living at the poker table or just sitting at the slot machines, using their pay cheques. The characters really fascinated us.”
Actor Ryan Reynolds, who plays Curtis in the film, says he too wanted to see how gambling played out in venues that weren’t on the tourist map. “These types of places are sort of the end of the rainbow,” he says, rememebering he saw some people who had been playing for 30 years. These gamblers had many of the most interesting stories to tell and while he wasn’t sure how much of their tale was fabricated, it was fascinating nonetheless.
Facing financial hardship, Curtis joins Gerry (played by Ben Mendelsohn) for a road trip on which they hope to win not only money but their own sense of direction, an existential hangover drifting amongst quietly contemplative scenes.
Fleck told Collider.com it was important for the realism of the film to have lived it in someway. He and Boden did the trip we see in the film in reverse.
“Along the way we took pictures and wrote down any dialogue we heard that might fit in. We played in poker tables, visited dog tracks, horse tracks, and off-track betting parlours which I definitely didn’t know about. You know, down and dirty places along the Mississippi River.”
It was one of these conversations that heavily influenced the theme of the movie. “Anna was sitting at a table and she was the only woman and she was eavesdropping on the poker conversation,” Fleck said in an interview with Jessica Kiang of IndieWire. “The topic of rainbows came up and a guy literally said “I drove to the end of a rainbow once. Wasn’t nothing there.” And how great is that? Without any sense of the irony of what it means to be chasing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And so we worked that into the movie.”
That the film has become a firm favourite of casino fans comes as no surprise given the mainstream appeal of table games like poker and slot machines thanks to online casino operators bringing the joys of these to internet-based platforms. And while the film didn’t enjoy success at the box office, it was well-received at major film festivals in 2015 and now ranks amongst Casino, The Gambler, Croupier, The Cooler, Hard Eight and California Split as one of the finest films about gambling.
Aside from Mississippi Grind’s strong sense of kinship between its two protagonists, it’s the casino that offers a third main character. It is here where the sights, sounds and smells of the environment add drama, energy and a singular colourful aesthetic that gives Fleck and Boden’s film an appealing charm.