I often moan that something a lot of Hollywood movies lack in 2017 is a sense of tension, of silence: two people in a room just talking, no score, no green screens in the background. No MCU movie made would ever have the scene in Spider Man 2 where Peter tells Aunt May that he is responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. It’s too quiet and bleak, measured in its slow reveal of emotions (it also holds the camera on Maguire for a long, long time). You can hear a pin drop.
Amusingly the directors of this film, Anna Boden and Robert Fleck, are doing the upcoming Captain Marvel movie. I’m sure it will be fine; decent in that way a lot of the MCU movies are where I like them but then don’t remember very much after the viewing. And there’ll almost certainly be no hushed tone, no quiet. They don’t have room in a big blockbuster nine times out of ten.
In contrast, the locales of Mississippi Grind, the dive bars, race tracks, and various gambling parlors have a sense of that silence built into them. These places have been around too long, existing only for the “beautiful losers” who haunt their halls, as Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) phrases it to Curtis (Ryan Reynolds). Gerry and Curtis are the beautiful losers of the film and its anti-heroes, compulsive gamblers who team up on a road trip to New Orleans to take part in a cash-heavy poker game where maybe, just maybe Gerry could win for once. Curtis doesn’t seem to need the high Gerry gets from gambling, his charm and looks seemingly allowing him to coast through the country (until you see how truly broken and adrift he is in the last act), where Gerry looks like and is an addict, his face and body a little too thin, sunken.
Yet there’s a sweetness to Gerry, a likeability that makes him persevere beyond the vast problems of being himself and makes the viewer want to see this sad, selfish bastard have the tiniest of victories. And Mendelsohn’s secret gift of sympathy (usually cast aside in a great career of psychopaths and crooks) comes to the fore here beautifully in this small, moving scene about forty minutes into the film. Annaleigh Tipton and Sienna Miller play St. Louis prostitutes, Vanessa and Simone, whom Curtis has known off and on – he’s a little in love with Simone, or would be if he stopped moving (he’s like a shark that way – he can’t stop or he’d die). Simone and Vanessa are perfect opposites – Simone is smart enough to see through Curtis’ bullshit where Vanessa is younger, less guarded. Much like Gerry that way, they are too sincere to lie or put up a good front even when they need to.
This brings us here, to the piano scene. In their house, Vanessa shows Gerry and the audience her magic tricks, directly facing the camera as it cuts back and forth between them and Gerry on the couch, his genuine joy all over his face. Tipton radiates a shy, delicate hope, admitting that she hid one part “so I could show you guys later.” Their banter is flirty, hesitant, no aggression involved. She asks for his trick, smiling: “I showed you mine…you show me yours. Could be anything.” He sits up from the couch and the shot moves from Tipton’s curious expression back to Gerry now at…the piano.
And he begins to play “Gymnopedie No. 1” by Erik Satie. It is a lovely, solemn piece of classical music, as reluctant and bittersweet as the words and actions Gerry and Vanessa cannot quite express to each other. We go from a medium shot of Gerry and Vanessa next to each other on the piano bench, Gerry facing away as he plays, to a brief pull into Vanessa’s face, her face holding reserves of curiosity and interest. It doesn’t quite last long enough for my money, as the editing cuts to Curtis and Simone in the other room, marveling over Gerry’s playing (Curtis smiles and says “He’s pretty good”) then back. Gerry finishes with a slight dissonant chord, appropriate for a man with no smooth surfaces, but the point is made. She has gotten a glimpse into Gerry’s soul, all rough edges and stumbling starts, in the music. Maybe she has heard part of her own there as well.
And this is how the misc en scene and filmmaking of Mississippi Grind pays off. This setting of a battered old house with too many books houses two vulnerable, wounded people showing some of who they are and allows them to have that peek into the other’s life (Curtis and Simone have an understanding as well, but Curtis is wounded by Simone knowing too well who he really is – regardless his head rests in her lap).
Gerry and Vanessa don’t have sex. They come close to a kiss, Mendelsohn’s eyes showing a deep yearning (you’d think he couldn’t smoulder but he does), but he stops anything from happening between them. Gerry heartbreakingly says, “I have problems with money”. Vanessa tells him that “I’m going to do something with my life. I don’t know what, but…something. I thought you should know that.” Her face is open and accepting, Gerry’s ravaged by his own demons, and that’s more than enough reason to not go further for him. Watching the scene again I thought that this would be the last time they saw each other. And maybe that’s alright. Gerry and Vanessa will have that night in their memories, platonic, immaculate, where they showed each other what they could do, pieces of themselves. All in a scene that understands the phrase “in the still of the night”, where they seem to be the only two people in the world.