by Philip Price
Director: Clark Duke
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn & Clark Duke
Runtime: 1 hour & 57 minutes
Right off the bat I'd like to acknowledge the fact I live in Hot Springs, Ark. which is situated about 45 minutes northeast of Glenwood where writer/director and actor Clark Duke was born; his experiences in the area clearly informing his connection to and desire to adapt John Brandon's best-selling book of the same name. And yes, the climactic scene of the movie takes place on historic bathhouse row and was shot about five minutes from my house in downtown Hot Springs National Park. I say all of this not to try and convince you of how cool I am (unless it's working, then yes - I'm very cool), but instead to make it clear there will be no playing favorites here simply because the movie takes its name from the state I've called home for nearly three decades and because I recognized a few locations. In fact, despite the title of the film Duke and his crew shot the majority of his directorial debut in Alabama rather than in or around the Little Rock area as the movie suggests. So while there is certainly a layer of appreciation and affection for some of the sites we see and the accents we hear, there was almost more of an eagerness to see these things serve as a backdrop for what is a genre of movie we're all very familiar with whether from the natural state or not.
“Arkansas” pays plenty of homage to the overall tone of the state, especially in its flashbacks to the mid-to-late ‘80s as we're delivered the backstory of Vince Vaughn's character, Frog, as he belts out the Gatlin Brothers and cruises past open fields and dilapidated barns in his Nissan Fairlady 300ZX Coupé. At one point, Vaughn's Frog asks a couple of his associates what they're up to in which they respond with a generic comment before summarizing the feeling as being, "asleep at the wheel of the American dream." There's almost no better phrasing one could have concocted to define the stagnant air of progress yet fierce commitment to maintaining aged ideals (some good, not all bad). It is in this kind of mentality that we find the best facets of Duke's film as he's not simply telling a story of the "Dixie mafia" and funneling said crime/drama through the lens of the south, but he's utilizing this contradictory air of the south where everything feels ironic without the slightest bit of intent to add specific tone to his crime caper. “Arkansas,” the film, although a story about drug dealers is mostly a story about two generations of men whose aspirations are only limited by the economic options of their environment and whose intelligence is only undermined by their (mostly) unassuming appearances dictated by that same environment.
Duke’s film begins with a Charles Portis quote from The Dog of the South that reads, "A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can't quite achieve escape velocity." Though I've never read this Portis selection (I know, I live in Arkansas - what am I doing with my life?) and am only familiar with the story due to having read the Wikipedia page after seeing the quote at the top of this film it doesn't feel like I'm venturing too far a guess that Portis' book was of this particular brand of dark, southern fried humor; one that shows indifference toward things like death and cruelty with a pension for saying poetic things in the most layman's of layman terms (there's that sense of contradiction again). If there was anyone Duke seemingly took inspiration from though, it would be the Coen brothers who directed the 2010 version of Portis' most famous novel, True Grit. It is in this wheelhouse of the neo-noir crime thrillers that Duke and Andrew Boonkrong's screenplay first introduces us to Kyle Ribb (Liam Hemsworth) who in his opening narration describes the term "Dixie Mafia" as being too generous a description as it's more a loose affiliation of scumbags with no real sense of organization. Kyle spouts more philosophies about how it's only people who want things that need such philosophies by which to live their lives (he says this as mindless reality HGTV plays in the background), but while Kyle likes to subscribe to the fact he has no desires or wants in life, and is happy to serve as little more than a dependable cog in a fascinating machine it's inevitable-especially after meeting his new partner Swin Horn (Duke) - that the guy will be able to avoid such natural entanglements and feelings. Swin, on the other hand, has probably never met a person he couldn't talk to and no matter how off-putting his bright clothes, man-bun and the baby caterpillar on his upper lip might be to most southerners, he is more than confident that by the time you get to know him that you'll be the best of buds. After a swift promotion in Louisiana, Kyle makes his way to Little Rock where he meets Swin and is informed the two of them are to live by the orders of an Arkansas-based drug kingpin (Vaughn), with the catch being they've never actually met this elusive "Frog". Posing as junior park rangers our heroes handle the jobs they're given by Frog's close associate, Bright (John Malkovich), by delivering the packages handed off to them via a go-between referred to only as "Her" (Vivica A. Fox). All smells of roses if for only a short time as deals inevitably go wrong, further bad decisions are made, and both Kyle and Swin end up on the very short list of Frog's living enemies.
Where Duke really succeeds in conveying this type of story in this kind of setting is in the definition his and Boonkrong's script bring to the type of people he's exploring these themes and ideas through. If you've seen the trailer for the film or have a sense of the younger Hemsworth's career trajectory then one wouldn't be completely wrong in assuming that “Arkansas” may very well be worthy of little more than the $5 bin at Wal-Mart (the irony all over this thing, right?) or maybe a redbox rental, but fortunately for both Hemsworth and the residents of the Sam Walton state, “Arkansas” is anything but a dismissable piece of genre junk. It is instead a genuinely heartfelt ode to the region known as the "south" if not necessarily Arkansas in particular and a keen study on how a generally intelligent, perceptive, and good-looking guy like Kyle might fall into this world for reasons heavily influenced by the region of the country in which he was born. Kyle is the kind of guy that had he been dealt a different hand with better and more opportunity could have easily been a successful and well-measured individual that might have been conditioned to expect that the things he desires are worth pursuing. Kyle was probably raised in a park-whether it be a trailer or RV, it doesn't really make a difference-and was allowed if not expected to occupy himself in the nature that would become the atmosphere of his youth. Kyle was undoubtedly a smart kid in whom his teachers saw promise despite his low-income, absent parent circumstances. The type that inevitably went on to fall in with the rest of the crowd that was bred around him that offered more instantly gratifying rewards than pursuing the unreal hope of continuing his education or even learning a trade (a trade that's not drug dealing, I mean). Kyle is the guy born and bred in this "real south" that Duke's movie hopes to portray. His arc of going from being mostly satisfied with being more than capable of his grunt work to the point of beginning to wonder what someone in Frog's position might think of him and if they'd consider him someone worthy of taking up the mantle is a major step and one that the film chronicles nicely in its five chapter structure. While Kyle is our main protagonist, our mirror to Vaughn's Frog in this breeding ground that cycles generations through inadvertent lives of violence and crime, Swin is a character who allowed this lifestyle into his existence; where Kyle fell into it, Swin accepted the invitation. Because of this perspective that comes from choice, Swin sometimes shortchanges the severity of the consequences to his actions and is probably the reason he ignores the rules and begins a relationship with a local, Johnna (Eden Brolin, daughter of Josh). This naturally complicates things further once Frog becomes aware of the duos actions that mistakenly paint them as a threat to his empire.
Let's talk about Frog though, as both the story of this man's journey and the portrayal by Vaughn are among the best things this otherwise solidly engaging film has to offer. As stated, “Arkansas” is situated into a five chapter structure with the first chapter introducing us to Kyle and Swin and indoctrinating us into this world of Deep South drug trafficking. The second chapter jumps back to 1985 in West Memphis and introduces us to a young, vibrant Frog whose options are only improved when the opportunity of running drugs is presented to him. This structure, while something of a convention, really aids in the understanding of the plot as there's no structure to the job of a drug dealer in the least. There's no way to tell in which direction the narrative could go given the amount of variables involved in a given deal and so, while the screenplay understands this and gets ahead of it the same could be said for the character of Frog and his relationship with the business that would come to define his life. Frog learns the tricks of the trade from a mentor named Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams), but it doesn't take long for Frog to figure out he's getting the short end of the stick while doing the bulk of the work and that cutting out a few levels of individuals would only result in bigger pay days for himself and so as he ascends to the top of the food chain and re-locates his base of operations he utilizes the mistakes of Almond to shape his methodology for running his own business. It is for these reasons that Frog is both successful in his craft for the many years that he is and also weary when two movers and shakers enter into his pyramid and threaten the chain of command. Frog doesn't much care for who Kyle and/or Swin might be as people, but more so that they might be smart enough to usurp him-something Frog knows a thing or two about but can't allow to happen. Beyond the dynamics at play and the strong ideas Duke is getting at there is much to be said about the aesthetic of the piece overall as well. Sure, Swin may be the obvious point of reference on this topic with his bold colors, vintage t-shirts and unique hair choices, but I bring this up now because it is Frog's wardrobe paired with the intentionally hazy cinematography of Steven Meizler in Frog's segments in the ‘80s and the ace musical cues that really come to define the identity of “Arkansas” as a movie. This whole look and feel that Duke and Meizler have crafted is one that’s easy to define, but almost impossible to describe in terms of the feeling the look is meant to elicit. Yes, nostalgia to an extent, but only for a certain sect of viewers-to the rest of the audience it simply has to be cool and appealing and while I don’t personally find nostalgia in yoke Western shirts and George Jones songs the film is able to convey the fact these things are inherent to what makes these people, this place, and their story so appealing. OK, so maybe there’s a little bias at play, but Duke justifies the use of his home state as the backdrop for this genre story in a directorial debut the rest of Arkansas can be proud of and one we should be happy to call our own.