When you do something for the first time, you don’t expect a grand slam, even out of a big swing. You might hope, you might dream, but you’re more likely to keep expectations close. For author John Brandon, this meant releasing his first novel, Arkansas, into the world in 2009. One can only wonder what was going through his mind when he discovered that it would be adapted for the screen with a cast that includes Vince Vaughn (Brawl in Cell Block 99), Michael Kenneth Williams (The Public), Vivica A. Fox (Kill Bill, Vol. 1), John Malkovich (Dangerous Liaisons), and Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games series). His story, revolving around southern drug dealers, possesses shades of Elmore Leonard and Sergio Leone as everyone’s on the grift and there’s no promise you’ll get out alive. Mixed with a cast that’s ready to play, this feature length directorial debut from Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine series), who also acts in the film opposite Hemsworth, is a slow burn neo-western that you can enjoy from the comfort of your couch.
Kyle (Hemsworth) is on a low rung of a widespread organization selling drugs throughout the South. Used to working alone, Kyle is a little turned off on the notion of working with the smart mouth Swin (Duke), but it comes with a promotion, so Kyle’s willing to deal. The two manage to get along and their assignments go smoothly; that is until an oversight leads to a deadly consequence and the two find themselves the target of their mysterious boss known only as Frog (Vaughn).
Duke and cinematographer Steven Meizler (The OA) manage to make just about every scene in Arkansas look dingy, yet charming. The world’s just a little hazy, the vibe a little sultry, and everyone’s actions a bit questionable just by association. Even when Kyle and Swin are under the supervision of the slightly-upper class Forest Ranger Bright (Malkovich), there’s a fuzziness to the frame that makes even the quiet moments become penetrated by the scuzziness of dope dealing and possible violence. To the credit of Andrew Boonkrong (Show Business) and Duke, who adapted Brandon’s book, nothing about the film feels like it’s putting on airs or that the cast is somehow stereotyped. Rather, like the aforementioned Leonard, the film allows the audience to breath in the characters and the atmosphere, to acclimate to the persistent dread of their existence, to understand that this life is just something they do because once they are in, there is only one way out. The cinematography and a visible looseness with the camera (a shot starts wide and slowly pushes in, bobbing a bit along the way in, before cutting to a new scene and bobbing as it pulls out), imbue the whole of Arkansas with a ‘70’s vibe reminiscent of Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990). You’re not supposed to root for Kyle and Swin, yet, despite ourselves, we do.
Part of the esteem we feel for the characters has less to do with their actions (there’s plenty of murder to keep you on your toes and your attachment low) and more to do with their code. Sure, Kyle states earlier on that drug dealers in the South are far less organized than others, citing the Mafia and Mexican cartels specifically, and that there is no creed any of them abide by, but it becomes quite clear that the one thing they all respect is strength and cleverness. You have to be both if you want to (a) survive or (b) get promoted, which is why Frog insulates himself from his team through a variety of layers so that even the name “Frog” seems like a myth to Kyle and Swin. The consistency in what drives them all, even as Boonkrong and Duke give us small pieces of information here and there which we have to piece together for both Kyle and Swin, it is easy to understand what all of them, even the enigmatic Her (Fox) and somehow kind-hearted Bright, want from being involved in the drug game. Without understanding that pull, that drive to stay in the game, a lot of the urgency and intensity of the film would dissipate quickly.
If there’s anything to be grateful for about the theater shutdowns curtailing any theatrical plans for Arkansas, it’s that there’s no way this film would make the bank it needs to be listed as successful. It’s got a top-rate cast, many of whom have found great success doing smaller films where they get to play around with characters instead of being pigeon-holed, but Arkansas would’ve been going head-to-head with Black Widow on its original release date of May 1st. Is it a sold form of counter-programming? Absolutely. It still wouldn’t get the eyeballs it needed before SCOOB! hit May 15th and Fast & Furious 9 on May 22nd. With the release straight to VOD and home video, Arkansas has a shot to break through the noise of the streaming services and offer something a little different than the usual good-guy-fights-bad-guy model, especially because Vaughn is such a damn good bad guy, even when he’s on the lighter side of the evil spectrum. His role as Frog is pretty straight-forward, but it’s the way he plays with it that makes him entertaining. Same with Malkovich and Fox, who have the least to do in the film, yet are clearly having a ball. Hemsworth is given a great opportunity to break out from the romance genre his role in The Hunger Games began and film Isn’t It Romantic openly mocked. The big surprise, though, is Duke himself. He’s been acting since 1992, has directed three shorts, and did a tv series with Michael Cera, but Arkansas doesn’t feel like a first time feature. As an actor, Duke is fine as Swin, which is good because the focus is mostly on how Kyle reacts to the constantly changing circumstances, which Hemsworth may surprise many with his performance here. As a director, though, I’d love to see more criminal/neo-western stories from Duke. He allows the story to take its time, to focus on characters, and to allow the scene to breathe, keeping the focus off spectacle and on the weight of the moment. I don’t think Duke’s film will convince anyone to travel down South, but it may just incite a few folks to look a little differently at the people around them.
Arkansas Special Features
- Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Clark Duke
- “Making Arkansas” Featurette
- “He Stopped Loving Her Today” Performed by The Flaming Lips
- Deleted Scenes
No special features were available at the time of this review.
Available on VOD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital May 5th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.