2020, R, 121 min. Directed by Clark Duke. Starring Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, Clark Duke, John Malkovich, Eden Brolin), Michael Kenneth Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Chandler Duke, Jacob Zachar.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 8, 2020
Cinema is great at myths, and the longest-standing of all may be the idea of organized crime. Detectives running red string between photos on a board like kneecapping and drug running has a flow chart is preposterous, but equally so is the fantasy of mythical codes of behavior. Whether it's omerta in the Mafia, Ninkyodo for the yakuza, or a platitude like "honor among thieves," it's nothing but a plot device, a way to make the inevitable reversal of fortunes make sense. Somebody snitches, somebody flips, somebody makes off with the take.
The reality is that most criminal enterprises operate under a shadow of confusion, of disorganization. That's the story of Arkansas, a hard-boiled noir where the end is written in the messy beginning. It's all because no one knows who Frog is. He's the mysterious king pin of a drug operation in the Natural State, and he's who low-level drug runners Kyle (Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke) work for, or have been told they work for by Bright (Malkovich), a park ranger who may or may not know who Frog is himself.
Turns out, Frog is the owner of the local second-hand store that never really seems to sell much of anything. That's revealed by a flashback that begins after Swin and Kyle are left to clear up someone else's mess, setting off a toppling row of dominoes that will lead them to their mysterious boss. Turns out Frog (Vaughn continuing his run of battered-and-bruised performances) has his own long path, but his dominoes started falling in 1985.
It's a similar structure to Dunkirk, of narrative timelines traveling at different speeds, only to crash into each other and leave a simple moral in the rubble. Dumb criminals die young. Old criminals get fat and lazy and covered in blood, and their only option is to work out how to get out (not that you ever really can) with their skin and cash in tact.
On the surface, Arkansas feels like a post-Tarantino crime flick - non-linear time, a deep-cut soundtrack, a star looking for a comeback performance, and a moral that boils down to "don't be like this guy," just all served with a side of grits. But it's much more of a spaghetti Western, where everyone's flaws and greed show they basically don't have a good side, and betrayal is the order of business. Some time, sooner or later, everything's going to go wrong for Kyle and Swin - as Frog dryly explains, "Nothing's ever going to go right for them again."
Even though it's adapted and directed by Duke from John Brandon's 2009 novel, and he stars as the smarter-than-he-looks Swin, it's not a vanity project for the filmmaker. There's no mythologizing here, but instead a slow grind of sadness and pathos, brought home hard by Hemsworth's depiction of Kyle as the kind of killer whose actions accidentally intersect with something that looks like morality. Much as he fills the Clint Eastwood role, so Vaughn exudes the bloody mournfulness and gaunt self-realization that made Lee Van Cleef's villains so memorable. Throw in Malkovitch in a surprisingly understated and vulnerable performance as the nihilist Bright, and it's an oddly moving intersection of unlikable but understandably flawed scumbags.
Vaughn yet again proves, as with Brawl on Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete, that no one gets under the skin of truly amoral characters like he does. Here he adds a twist of backwoods wisdom - not folksy charm, but experience learned from bitter lessons. Yet it's Hemsworth who really intrigues here. There's a handful of decisions he makes, like Kyle's unexplained limp, or the childlike way he defends getting a soda with his value meal even though they have plenty in the fridge, that could make him too sympathetic. But that's offset by a steeliness, and proclivity to calm violence, that reflects excellently on both him as a performer, and Duke as a director prepared to let unconventional choices define the story. With its brooding tone of tired inevitability, his Arkansas knows exactly how to find drama and sentiment in what could otherwise just be a dour path to the inevitable.
Arkansas is available now as part of the Alamo on Demand service. Buy or rent it here.