Liam Hemsworth as Kyle Ribb
Directed by Clark Duke
In Arkansas, two men confront a woman who owes them money. After a lengthy interrogation, the woman finally relents and hands over the cash. The two men start to leave, and she says, “I’m sorry, I was just scared like we all are,” to which one of the men replies, “You’re wrong. You said, ‘Scared like we all are.’ We’re not scared — of anyone.”
So goes Clarke Duke’s electrifying directorial debut Arkansas, a gripping, violent, and often humorous depiction of low-level drug dealers operating in a flea-bitten, rural southern town. These aren’t Scorsese-level criminals. These guys drive pickup trucks and mini-vans, and gather in RVs to watch trashy B-movies. They live to sell drugs and make money. They have no friends and typically avoid personal connections with anyone, including women, which deprives many of them, including Kyle (a terrific Liam Hemsworth) of much personality.
Enter Swin (Duke), an average-Joe whose brash style and colorful fashion sensibilities fit right in with the locals, but clash with Kyle’s more reserved demeanor. He likes to talk. A lot. “Eventually,” he tells Kyle, “everyone starts to like me.” This oddball pair are sent to work under an eccentric park ranger/drug dealer (John Malkovich), who operates with Her (Vivica A. Fox) under the mysterious Frog (Vince Vaughn), a drug kingpin who hides himself from everyone but his two personal assistants, Tim (Brad William Henke) and Thomas (Jeff Chase).
Naturally, things go awry, and Kyle and Duke suddenly find themselves promoted, which means they get to hide a bunch of bodies before they can (briefly) enjoy the splendors of drug trafficking. Making matters worse is the introduction of Johnna (Eden Brolin), a young woman who takes a liking to Swin’s rough and ragged style and helps complete a strangely perfect family unit. Albeit, one that could end at any moment should Frog and his goons decide it must.
Films like Arkansas are fascinating. They present average characters who aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are and thrust them into a violent world in which only the strong survive. In this line of work everyone has a gun, an itchy trigger finger and an irrepressible drive. At one point, a man turns tail on one of his superiors because, after months of thinking it through, no other option remains. It’s not personal, just business — the old adage goes. As we’ve seen in similar films such as Fargo, Goodfellas and even No Country for Old Men, a wad of cash only gets you so far. Eventually, someone always comes to collect.
The characters of Arkansas understand the risks involved with this life but choose it anyway because they’re simply not built for the 9 to 5 régime the rest of us endure on a daily basis. Although, as one character correctly points out late in the film, “I still ended up with a boss, a job, a wacky co-worker and a baby on the way.” Turns out, the short path to success features just as many persistent obstacles — and a lot more danger.
I was engrossed in Arkansas from start to finish. The dialogue, lifted from John Brandon’s novel, is crisp, quick, but natural. Characters engage in playful conversations about intuition and the nature of existence whilst burying bodies in dark fields and murky swamps. At one point, during a gruesome torture scene, a man pauses to puzzle over an 8-track player. Such scenes induce laughter, but also unease as that same overarching naïveté (and stupidity) ultimately leads to avoidable casualties.
Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke have never been this good. The former sheds his boyish charm and plays Kyle with steely-eyed conviction. While Duke, typically a comedic actor, steals the show as the likable, ponderous, though naïve Swin; a man who recognizes his personal limitations, but refuses to let them weigh him down. Kyle and Swin form a memorable team. They’re not bad guys. Just two people who decided to take an alternate path than the rest of us.
John Malkovich and Vivica A. Fox are memorable in their brief screen time as a man who has probably stayed in the game for too long; and a “buffer” who refuses to ditch the business out of fear.
Vince Vaughn delivers one of his best performances to date as a ruthless, though measured gangster who hides his true disposition beneath layers of old-fashioned charisma. You fear the guy, but like him all the same.
These characters wouldn’t last a day against the likes of DeNiro or Pesci. And that’s the point. Here is a film about people who watched Goodfellas a thousand times and didn’t learn a damned thing.