In ‘Arkansas,’ People Are Strange but the Plot Lacks a Decent Scheme  

Arkansas” has the curious feeling of always knowing it’s just a movie. It has been made by someone who has absorbed so many other movies that they are pasted all over this one. Director Clark Duke not only co-wrote the script, but also plays one of the lead roles. His is that curious case of an emerging director who has an eye, both for visual structure and casting, but it’s the narrative and tone that still need honing.

As the title suggests the movie is set in Arkansas, where two oddball drug dealers named Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke) roam its backwaters in search of striking it big in this unsavory business. One of their latest deliveries puts them in the path of a park ranger, Bright (John Malkovich), who works for a big shot local drug boss known as Frog (Vince Vaughn). The two end up working at Bright’s public park. But a drug deal with a local Greek client goes bad and the client’s hot-headed son, Nick (Chandler Duke) comes after Bright. It’s one of those attacks that results in both men getting killed. After finding the bodies Kyle and Swin decide to cover it all up, lest they get blamed for Bright’s death, and continue the drug running operation. Even as other clients seem puzzled at Bright’s sudden disappearance, the two friends keep finding ways to spin the lie. They have also never met Frog, who lives “in retirement” in a nice house in the woods doubling as a makeshift antiques and goods shop. Meanwhile, Swin also develops a relationship with a naïve local, Johnna (Eden Brolin) who soon comes to realize just how dangerous her man’s work is. The film also takes pauses in-between these developments to narrate the rise of Frog from mere shop owner to big time narco.

In another decade, like the ‘90s, “Arkansas” would have been the kind of movie destined for straight to video status at your local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. Duke is in his mid-30s so he remembers the era well. His whole movie is a nostalgic, aesthetic exercise. Titles look taken from bad ‘80s movies, the music score by Devendra Banhart is in line with a current fad for moody synth soundtracks. The narrative keeps pausing for flashbacks to 1984 to show us Frog rising in the ranks of the local smuggling trade. But much of it feels like an excuse to show him lounging at home with associates watching movies on VHS like “The Toxic Avenger.” Classic songs like the Gatlin Brothers’ “All the Gold in California” play over and over like mantras similar to films like “The Big Lebowski.” Cinematographer Steven Meizler’s lighting scheme does not look much like cinema per se, but akin to the kind of strange subdued look of “Twin Peaks.” Frog’s own backstory involves two twins he picks up as young dropouts running an auto shop for free. In the present they are a middle-aged pair who just fill the background, like odd props for Frog. When one looks at Duke’s own track record as an actor all these influences are not surprising. He has acted in a whole slew of projects from “The Croods” to “Bad Moms,” “Kick-Ass” to “Superbad.” Duke has been close to pop culture and obviously breathes it too.

So Duke has a taste for the geeky and weird. It would all play better if the movie stopped distracting itself with efforts at being strange and polished up its purpose. As drug runners Kyle and Swin have little in terms of perverse intrigue or danger. Liam Hemsworth continues the tradition set by him and his brothers of occupying space with serious stares and staring down opponents. But he and Duke always feel aware they are in a film, playing characters that are essentially cartoons. Their dialogue is sparse and gives little insight into them aside from the fact they are drug runners for no other reason than it’s the only thing to do around here. Once Bright is murdered their function is to cover it up and pretend all is well with clients like a woefully underused Vivica A. Fox. Johnna looks so bored she doesn’t seem to care when it becomes obvious what Swin does for a “living.” There’s a convenient plot twist when she realizes she’s pregnant, which means Swin truly has to earn those coke dollars now. At least this gives him some kind of believable motivation. Kyle has no reason to be doing anything of what he does in this film. 

The two best performances are unsurprisingly those of John Malkovich and Vince Vaughn. Malkovich’s brief role as Bright has a hilarious, demented southern twang. Vince Vaughn is cold and calculating as Frog. The flashback scenes where he starts running drugs for a local dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams) in the 1980s and the subsequent recruitment of his twin helpers have a more criminal air. Watch how he tells his recruits they are “now drug dealers” with an authentically corrupt smile. Vaughn keeps finding himself delivering excellent roles as a villain in work unworthy of the effort, as in the second season of HBO’s “True Detective.” Frog’s flashback scenes are so engaging you wonder why the movie isn’t his story.

As a talent reel “Arkansas” displays skilled people who know how to assemble a movie. The question is what’s the point? What is this movie about aside from just giving us “drug dealers” in a “crime plot?” It’s that kind of movie where its descriptions should all be in quotation marks. Even surrealism works best when it is distorting something that feels true. “Arkansas” looks weird, it feels weird, but it doesn’t linger.

Arkansas” premieres May 5 on VOD.