There are no highs in poker. There are lows. There are zoned-out middles. There are even euphoric moments of intellectual unconsciousness. (All of the plastic discs on this felt surface are mine now? I can just drag them away and into my hat?) But there are no ordinary highs, the way you feel when you bite into a perfect sandwich or watch your team score a miraculous touchdown. Poker, particularly when played in casinos, is about deadening. Fold. Fold. Call. Fold. Fold. Fold. Bet. Watch cards. Crumple into felt. Fold. For most who play, it is pastime as punishment, routine as regret. Make your mind strong by being dull.
Routine punishment and dull minds are not exactly the stuff of movie lore, and so poker has something of a checkered history at the movies. It is rarely portrayed accurately — not hugely important — but its extremes have a tendency to blur the refinement in the game. Rounders elegantly jargonized the game for newcomers. The Cincinnati Kid designed a world of grandeur. Maverick deconstructed and mocked that world. But none of these movies re-created the feeling of being alone and bored and inconsolable and stuck on the game in a lousy casino on a weekday night in the middle of nowhere. Mississippi Grind, the new film from writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, does just this. And they had to get lucky to do so. While the duo were shooting their minor league baseball drama Sugar in 2007, they stumbled upon a subculture in the American heartland.
“Because it [was] Iowa, we would run out of things to do on the weekends, and we discovered these riverboat casinos that were on the Mississippi River, and we went over to play blackjack — some of the crew, some of the actors — and we’d go have a good time on these riverboat casinos,” Fleck says. “But we were taken by how anti-glamorous they were. They were sort of like the opposite of Vegas, the opposite of Atlantic City. They were pretty dark places, and we were fascinated by the places themselves, but also the people in them, and so we filed that away years ago as an interesting location to start a journey.”
In 2007, the game was still thriving commercially. But now we have exited poker’s big moment. The online boom crested years ago and has now ceased. This year’s World Series of Poker Main Event airs opposite Monday Night Football throughout September, a less-than-auspicious time slot. And so Boden and Fleck’s film tracks two gambling lifers, out of time and right on time: hapless loser Gerry, a hangdog, debt-ridden real estate agent played by Ben Mendelsohn; and Curtis, a smoothie in a tweed coat and a Ryan Reynolds suit, carrying a satchel full of nonchalance. After Gerry and Curtis become acquainted at a table and split a couple of whiskeys, they meet again in a local bar and talk shop. Gerry can’t figure out Curtis’s game, he tells him, can’t spot his tell. “Wanna know why?” Curtis asks. “I don’t care about winning.” Curtis and Gerry strike a rapport that is common at tables but rarely translates to real life. Casino friends are not real friends. But Gerry believes he’s found a leprechaun in this stranger. Boden and Fleck got to know a few Gerrys before they could invent Curtis.
“We went from Iowa to New Orleans and went to a lot of these casinos and sat down in poker rooms and joined tournaments so that we could talk to these people,” Boden, 34, says, “and in Iowa there were a lot of people there who were local like Gerry who lived there and went there on the weekends.”
“When we bought into our very first poker tournament, when we were on the road at a casino, it was one of these low buy-in tournaments,” she says. “I just wasn’t a good player, but I played very, very conservatively and slowly bled money — and it got me sitting at the table for four hours, talking to people. One of the guys said — kind of to the table, kind of to himself — ‘I drove to the end of a rainbow once. There wasn’t nothing there. It just faded out into the trees.’ It’s such a strange and beautiful thing to say, and also felt like this kind of perfect metaphor for the journey that we were talking about for these two characters — trying to get that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It ended up kind of becoming like a theme of the movie, and an image we come back to a bunch of times.”
It’s true that Mississippi Grind returns to these visions — the film’s first shot is of a shimmering rainbow backdropping a bucolic Iowa farm — as its characters quest down the Mississippi, past shuttered factories and rusted towns, in search of their own pot of gold. There’s hope here, a belief in the modesty of luck. In that way, this is a newfangled kind of poker movie — a journey, with endings happy and others not so much. There is a history of regular-guy poker movies, about the men who work only to give their money away to their obsession, or, worse, who live for the action and little else. Boden and Fleck’s film features several instances of direct homage to its ’70s forbearers.
“This movie was definitely inspired by those movies — California Split being a huge one, and The Gambler, the original Gambler that was written by James Toback, who makes an appearance in the movie,” Fleck, who is 39, says. “Both movies came out in 1974, strangely. They were like two of the best movies about gambling ever made.”
The symmetry is remarkable. A bizarre, fascinating, and ultimately unsuccessful remake of Toback’s The Gambler was released last Christmas; Mississippi Grind takes more than a few cues from Robert Altman’s California Split, including a trip to the dog track and a dalliance with a pair of peppy sex workers. There’s even a scene wherein a dejected Reynolds challenges some kids to a game of one-on-one basketball for cash that almost directly mirrors a scene featuring Elliott Gould dropstepping his way to victory against a teenager in Altman’s film. California Split is also about a pair of strangers who come to need each other, like Curtis and Gerry, though in both cases their bonds are elusive — are they playing each other? Being played by someone else? Is it friendship if none of it happens in the daylight? It’s a visceral, up-close iteration of companionship that was uncommon in casinos for some time. Boden and Fleck watched as the stakes and rules of poker changed, as did the way its players interacted in the real world.
“I think the conversation we had most often with people involved with the game was about how the end of online gambling, poker gambling, when that got shut down, how that changed the vibe of the poker room,” Boden says. “Because all of a sudden, you had all these young people who learned how to play poker online and understand a certain way of playing poker, and now they’re coming into poker rooms and the people who grew up in the poker rooms have a very different way of playing where you actually, you know, see people’s faces and experience social interaction.”
“We did talk to the professional poker players — the grinders — the guys who have been doing this a long time,” Fleck says. “They miss those days because in 2003, the big boom happened, it attracted a lot of amateurs to the game, a lot of people who didn’t know what they were doing, and these professional players were very happy to have them at their table and take their money.”
For Reynolds, whose chipper motormouth routine works brilliantly here, and Mendelsohn, the game was mostly new.
“Ben and Ryan spent a lot of time in downtown New Orleans at the casino there, learning how to play poker,” Fleck says. “Ryan always knew when to walk away, but Ben — appropriate for his character — did not.”
I asked Fleck and Boden if Mendelsohn was perhaps applying a little Method to prepare for his performance.
“It’s a good question,” he says. “We were getting a little concerned, because he’d show up in the office after a marathon poker night, with like thousands of dollars in hundred-dollar bills, just kind of handing it around the office. And we were like, ‘Oh my god! This guy — he’s in the wrong mind-set to start this movie. This guy’s supposed to be a little bit of a loser.’ Soon enough, though, a day or two before we started shooting, he had lost all of that money, and he owed everybody in New Orleans money. So we were like, ‘OK, great, we can start shooting.’ But I don’t know if that was by design. With Ben, it’s hard to tell.”