‘Arkansas’ is a Wonderful Slice of Hangout Noir

by Chris van Dijk

Clark Duke has made a sizeable living being the dependable comic relief. He was the one who traveled to the fictional eighties alongside John Cusack in Hot Tub Time Machine; he was the nerdy sidekick in the road-trip/teen-comedy, Sex-Drive; he played another nerdy sidekick in both Kick-Ass movies; also, he made regular appearances in shows such as Two and a Half Men and The Office (U.S.).

As is custom with comedians, they often show themselves to be multitalented. Comedians often have a knack for drama, and Duke has proven to be another example of this with his performance in Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here.

Now with Arkansas, he’s proven himself to be a solid director as well. And it’s not a silly comedy either. Arkansas is a crime/noir thriller with a stellar cast including Vince VaugnVivica A. Fox, John Malkovich, Michael K. Williams, and Duke himself — oh, and also one of the Hemsworth brothers. (No, not the one who plays Thor; no, not the guy who’s in Westworld, but the one who dated Miley Cyrus.)

Duke had always dreamed about being a director and both the source novel (by John Brandon) and the locale (Arkansas is his home state) were near and dear to him. Duke had tried to adapt the novel for about ten years, co-writing and finetuning the screenplay, getting the right people to read it, and most important of all, getting people to finance it.

Getting your dream project made isn’t easy. No matter your connections, the world isn’t filled with investors aching to produce your little indie film. But after hard work and perseverance, Duke finally made it happen.

Arkansas may seem familiar on the surface. After Pulp Fiction, we’ve been bombarded with crime films with a dark comedic bent. Funny banter splashed with a dash of ultra-violence has been the norm for quite some time too. Yet even if it does have all the typical ingredients, Duke manages to give it its own identity. Arkansas is a laidback film, bittersweet in spirit, about a bunch of outsiders who are trying to make their way through a lawless world.  

The Plot

As the opening narration conveys, organized crime in the South is not that organized. It’s not like the Mafia or Yakuza, a group of men religiously following some code of honor. Organized crime in the South (in this case, it’s also referred to as the Dixie Mafia) is just an assortment of scumbags and deadbeats trying to get by. But like all criminal organizations, violence is not a strange occurrence.

Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) is a drug dealer who has proven his worth to a mysterious crime boss by the name of Frog (Vince Vaughn), a man he’s never seen before (and he’s not even sure he exists). Kyle is tasked to pair up with another drug dealer, Swin (Clark Duke), to support an operation in Arkansas which is run by a corrupt park ranger Pat Bright (John Malkovich).

While Kyle is more introverted, keeping his feelings mostly close to the chest, Swin is more outspoken and particularly philosophical — he even likes to place traffic cones on the outside of shipments, because according to him, “the randomness will throw off a cop”. Despite their opposing personalities, they soon become close friends.

Even though Pat tells them to avoid the locals, Swin quickly gets himself romantically involved with a local nurse named Johnna (Eden Brolin). When Swin introduces himself, Johnna humorously remarks “your name is as dumb as mine”.

As usual in these kinds of stories, everything goes according to plan… until it doesn’t. A violent mishap gets them serious trouble with their employer Frog. As their story progresses, we also get to see the story of Frog, and how he accidentally stumbled into a life of crime. We see his rise in the underworld as he’s being mentored by another crime boss Almond (Michael K. Williams). At the same time, we also see his spiritual degradation, and no matter how well you think you know the game, the game can still surprise you in the end.



A Sense of Melancholy

A melancholic air pervades the world of Arkansas. People randomly declare how they’ve failed in life or how they are waiting to die. One character referred to only as “Her” (Vivica A. Fox) honestly states that she would gladly commit suicide if it wasn’t a sin against God. It becomes clear that there is nothing glamorous about their criminal lifestyles. Most of them will never find their big score, the one that gives them the ability to retire, grow fat and old in the sun. Most of them simply get by, just like the rest of us.

Yet people in this world play the game. The rules aren’t fair, but that’s the way it is. If you aren’t careful, you can be betrayed by those closest to you.  If you screw up, you can end up in jail for most of your life. Sometimes people get murdered for no good reason.

There’s also the need to escape the conventions of society, yet the criminal lifestyle is no exile from society, as Swin realizes through the course of the movie. There’s no greater state of existence on the edge of society.

But it’s not all bad. Just like in real life, we see people growing closer, bonding over beers, and watching movies. Surprisingly, being a drug dealer can also be painstakingly boring, but as Malkovich’s Pat Bright so eloquently states in the film, “it’s better to look for something to do than ‘have something to do’ look for you.” Just like an office job, sometimes you just gotta ride through the hours. Wait until you can get paid so you can finally go home and relax.  

Liam Hemsworth

I’ll be honest, I was never impressed with Liam Hemsworth. The few films of his I’ve seen, such as in Independence Day: Resurgence (though admittedly I don’t remember much of that film other than Judd Hirch being chased by a giant wave), The Hunger Games, and Cut Bank, he didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I guess he’s handsome and can deliver his lines just fine, but that’s about it.

But in Arkansas, he made a good impression. There’s a grit to his performance that doesn’t feel forced. The way he carries himself seems convincing. While his character stays mostly calm through the movie, his eventual breakdown from the pressure is sincerely moving.

Apparently, Hemsworth’s interest in the project was how the film eventually got made. So his presence in the film is all the more commendable.  

Clark Duke

Clark Duke uses his familiar comic timing yet he doesn’t become a full-blown goofball. He’s a man perhaps too confident in his shoes, too smart to be in the business he’s in. At the same time, this also makes the character endearing. He doesn’t shy away from conveying his emotions. When the threat of death becomes increasingly real through the course of Arkansas, he’s not ashamed to show fear. Yet his loyalty is there until the end.

Neither his past or Kyle’s past is explained in the movie, perhaps both are explored deeper into the novel. We do know that he’s estranged from his series of sisters. It would have been nice to know more about his past, but alas, there was no time for this.

Best of all, his chemistry with Hemsworth works. You like hanging out with these characters. And if this was a TV show, I’d probably binge watch it until the end.

As a first time director, Duke seems fully confident in his choices. There are some wonderful shots sprinkled throughout the movie — and wonderful cinematography by Steven Meizler does justice to these southern plains of America. And the performances, are all noteworthy, especially that of Vince Vaughn. 

Vince Vaughn

I’ve often been conflicted with Vaughn’s performances through the years. If I’m honest, I’ve never considered him to be particularly funny — I’ve thought he was pretty obnoxious in The Wedding Crashers. Seeing as I’m a big fan of the original Psycho franchise, it’s hard for me not to cringe at Vince Vaughn’s turn as Normal Bates in Gus van Sant’s infamous 1998 Psycho remake.

But through the last few years, he’s had quite an interesting dramatic renaissance, from his performance in season 2 of True Detective to the skull-crashing bad-ass in A Brawl in Cellblock 99. As a dramatic character actor, he’s someone to be reckoned with.

He continues this trend in Arkansas. While technically being the antagonist, he never plays him like this. He gives the character an intellectual and warm sensibility. He never seems vicious, even in his acts of violence. The film spends a long time delving into his journey as a crime boss. It’s hard to side with him, especially since the misunderstandings throughout the film forces him to make painful decisions. He’s one of the more sympathetic antagonists I’ve seen on screen in quite a while.



A Little Too Neatly Tied Up

One major issue with Arkansas is its climax. Everything seems too neatly tied up by the end. Without spoiling the specifics, the eventual confrontation seems a little too easy, with one important character’s demise being mentioned in quick passing. It stops the film from being wholly satisfying.

That doesn’t mean the ending spoils the entire film, however. There’s a lot to like about the final act, especially as it takes one surprisingly dark turn.

If I can speculate, perhaps it followed the ending to the novel succinctly. What works in a novel, doesn’t always work on screen. And if there are any more flaws, it lies in its adaptation. Since this film is filled with interesting characters, played by great performers, you wish you spent more time with them, especially Malkovich’s character. But there’s simply no time for this in a movie. On paper, you can muse about their histories, you can give them side stories and so on. On film, you have a limited amount of time.

Hangout Noir

Having said that, I’m glad I got to spend a few hours with these characters. The dark turns notwithstanding, I would describe Arkansas as “hangout noir” (technically it’s a neo-noir, but it doesn’t sound as good). A lot of time is spent showing these characters spending time with each other, chilling, and musing about their lives. The soundtrack veers from funky to dreamlike, adding to the film’s laidback atmosphere.

You know things will go wrong eventually. The good times can never last. Eventually, the third act will commence and people will die and others will mourn them. There’s no escaping the inevitability.

But it’s all about the ride. And Arkansas is a ride I would definitely recommend.

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