In many ways, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Mississippi Grind” plays more like a documentary detailing the very real rollercoaster of gambling addiction than a drama. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) is a typical down-on-his luck gambling addict. He lives and dies by the game. He’s alienated his family. He lives alone with his cat and has few friends. He works sporadically as a real estate agent in small town Iowa. Life revolves around dodging his bookie and finding that next big win that will change it all. Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) is the antithesis of Gerry. He’s charming, charismatic and confident. He’s a risk-taker, but he knows when to walk away from the table. If Curtis showed up in a psychiatrist’s office, he’d likely be diagnosed with some sort of personality disorder, but on the surface at least, he appears to be a bit more well-adjusted than Gerry. While traveling through town, Curtis meets Gerry at a local poker game. Gerry’s luck seems to change upon meeting Curtis, and, like a true gambler, he takes it as a sign. The two become fast friends or at least kindred lost souls, each gaining something from the other’s company. Gerry convinces Curtis to bankroll a trip to a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans, where he believes they can win it all with his gambling prowess and Curtis’ good luck. The rest of the movie takes us on a character-driven, up-and-down road trip beginning in Iowa with stops in St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock and New Orleans. The gambling-infused journey is peppered with booze, lies, betrayal, broken hearts, self-loathing and loss — common characteristics of most gambling movies, and most compulsive gambler’s lives.
What Mississippi Grind Gets Right
Stuart Milan, RN, MSN, a certified gambling and substance abuse counselor and vice chairman of the Mississippi Council on Problem Gambling, has spent the last 27 years helping others overcome gambling and substance addictions at The Ranch Tennesse rehabilitation center. A recovering compulsive gambler himself, he has both personal and professional insight into the issue. Milan’s take on Mississippi Grind? Pretty accurate. “Gerry’s character exhibits all the signs of the classic compulsive gambler,” Milan says. “Once he starts, he can’t stop. Even when he is up, he can’t walk away. It’s about the activity, not winning in the end.” Gambling, rituals and superstitions plague Gerry’s existence. Everything becomes a bet or a sign, even small things like whether a guy coming out of the bathroom bar will be wearing glasses or not. Gerry will stop at nothing to fuel his addiction. He steals petty cash from his “disposable” job. He steals cash from his ex-wife under the guise of traveling across country to make amends. He has no communication with his daughter. Gerry is cut off from everyday life in many ways, consumed by his addiction. His self-loathing is palpable. Like many with addictions, he feels he deserves all of the misery that’s come his way. He wants to change, but he can’t. “He believes that money is going to be his savior. When he has enough, his problems will be better,” Milan says. “That is the false belief that all gambling addicts have. The truth is, it isn’t about the money.”
What Happens After the Ending
The movie’s conclusion is open for interpretation, but with hints of a Hollywood ending. With bus fare home the only money to his name, Gerry gambles his way back to the top. Curtis and Gerry land that life-changing fortune, split it down the middle, and Gerry buys back the old jalopy he pawned for card-game cash and drives away, winnings in hand. Viewers are left open to the possibility that maybe Gerry does turn it all around. He mends the fence with his wife and daughter, pays off his debts, saves his cat from the bookie’s henchman and starts over. Milan’s guess? Gerry loses it all — again. He doesn’t even make it out of the state before hitting the slots or finding a racetrack, casino or poker game. Because in reality, that’s the way of the gambling addict until they get professional addiction help. Like substance abuse, compulsive gambling is a very real and complex addiction recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is often a symptom of deep underlying issues like mental health disorders, abuse, trauma and attachment issues. Like someone addicted to substances, for the compulsive gambler, the activity creates a high, and they eventually need more and more of it to get the desired effect. “Very few people quit by just walking into a GA (Gamblers Anonymous) meeting,” Milan says. “You usually need some type of intensive professional help, whether that is outpatient or residential treatment.”
Hope for the Gambling Addict
Recovery from gambling addiction is possible. Milan has experienced it himself and seen it happen in those he treats at The Ranch Tennesse addiction and mental health rehab. “Even if a gambling addict is forced into treatment, the hope is that they move past denial, accept they have a problem and really engage in the help being offered,” Milan says. Effective treatment will not only help the compulsive gambler stop his or her destructive behavior, it will address the contributing factors that perpetuate the addiction cycle. Treatment may include traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy and 12-step interventions as well as experiential approaches and trauma-focused therapies like EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). Co-occurring disorders should be treated simultaneously. “If you have one addiction, there’s a good chance you have two,” says Milan. “Treatment must also address psychiatric issues, substance abuse and any other dual diagnosis.” In “Mississippi Grind,” the character of Curtis likes to say, “The journey is the destination.” The optimists out there may imagine an ending where Gerry’s journey takes him to a treatment center where he gets the help he needs to recover. “Mississippi Grind” is rated R. It is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and for download on iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play Movies. By Sara Schapmann