Mississippi Grind and film’s rocky future

The 2015 comedy-drama Mississippi Grind – the movie’s release alongside the build up and aftermath of its principal cast and crew – tells you everything you need to know about the dire state of today’s big budget movies. Grind is an underseen road trip, buddy comedy, and character study of two struggling gamblers played by Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn.

Everything about Reynolds, Mendelsohn, and the film’s directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, before their intersection on Grind chart a familiar path for budding Hollywood talent.

Reynolds had a traditional leading man trajectory. He started his career in Canadian soap operas before decamping to Hollywood and landing supporting parts in a few studio comedies. Success led him into other genres (Blade Trinity) and a few breakthrough leading roles in bigger budget fare like Green Lantern and the rom-com The Proposal. By 2010, he was rich, famous, and a movie star. Around this time, he mixed in some more eclectic work with small indie directors, including Atom Egoyan (The Captive) and Persopolis director Marjane Satrapi (The Voices).

Mendelsohn had a different origin, a veteran character actor with a long line of credits in his native Australia before getting international critical acclaim for his work in the 2010 crime drama Animal Kingdom. Hollywood started noticing, and he showed up in bigger budget studio releases (The Dark Knight Rises, Killing Them Softly). Still, he primarily focused on supporting roles in intense indie dramas like The Place Beyond the Pines and Starred Up.

Directors Boden and Fleck cut their teeth on several well received shorts and eventually got financing to make the indie dramas Half Nelson and Sugar. Both movies debuted in competition at the Sundance Film Festival with a solid critical reception and limited distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.

None of these stories would have been out of place from the mid-2000s and prior. Reynolds’ rise isn’t radically different from a pre Philadelphia Tom Hanks. Mendelsohn had the path of a “that guy” character actor: stay under the radar, work with great collaborators, and build a reputation across all budgets as a reliable second or third bill. Early Willem Dafoe comes to mind. Many talented directors like Boden and Fleck also started at Sundance and used it as a launchpad into a more prominent career.

Furthermore, strong fundamentals across the cast and below the line led to releases with high support and visibility. Years ago, a movie like Grind with a known star, talented character actor, an on the rise directing duo, and an appealing comedy-drama story would get a wide release and financing from a major studio. R-rated dramas aimed at adults regularly topped the weekend box office.

But by the mid-2010s, everything about movies had changed in an unrecognizable way to a decade prior. Audience expectations for film on the big screen had shifted towards four quadrant spectacles. The Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off in 2008, and by 2012, with The Avengers, the MCU was already one of the highest-grossing media franchises ever. Netflix was keeping people happy at home. By Grind’s theatrical release in September 2015, Netflix was available around the globe. It was on the precipice to launch more original movies and TV shows in a year than any other network or cable channel.

Consequently, Mississippi Grind was a film out of time. It got a two week theatrical run in a few theaters before disappearing on video on demand. It only made $130 thousand in its domestic gross on a $7 million budget.

Boden, Fleck, Mendelson, and Reynolds afterward all fell in a depressingly similar path toward superheroes, Star Wars, and direct-to-streaming blockbusters. After several years of TV work, Boden and Fleck were hand picked by Marvel studio head Kevin Feige to direct 2019’s Captain Marvel. Mendelson focused on supporting roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and the Secret Invasion Marvel streaming series. Reynolds found his biggest box office success ever with the superhero Deadpool movies while continuing to cash huge checks over at Netflix with the forgettable action adventures 6 Underground, Red Notice, and The Adam Project.

The days of small budget dramas aimed at adults were essentially over. To his credit, Mendelson has kept one foot in movies beyond those aimed at an ultra broad audience of varying financial and critical success. Boden, Fleck, and Reynolds haven’t looked back.

I don’t begrudge actors or directors from cashing in. They all have lives to provide for. Using small budget films as a stepping stone or calling card to huge paydays has been a tried and true path for decades. But what’s different today is how narrow that path to success is. Boden, Fleck, Mendelson, and Reynolds are working for giant Disney tentpoles because there are few reliable alternatives. Dramas for adults, independent arthouse, and studio comedies are almost entirely out of theaters, relegated to low budget “content” sold directly to streamers or rejiggered as TV series.

For the sake of the industry, for movies as an artistic medium, and for just sheer variety of entertainment, we need more films like Mississippi Grind out there. We need filmmakers and actors who have more paths to financial stability than the Mouse House or Netflix. But realistically, there are no easy answers or solutions. Today, in late 2023, there are reasons for hope: recent box office shows signs of superhero fatigue, and the studios’ streaming services have mostly unclear paths to financial success. Fresh ideas may be around the corner.