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June 2, 2020

Film review: ‘Arkansas’ explores the lives of deadbeat drug dealers

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Writer/director Clark Duke’s “Arkansas” takes viewers on a wild ride through the Razorback state, with drug deals gone bad and hapless, comedic losers who would make the Coen brothers blush.

It’s streaming on Apple, Amazon and other platforms starting May 5, after having its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival abruptly canceled because of the threat of spreading the coronavirus.

That’s a shame, because this movie a big, old-fashioned crime thriller that is best viewed on a big screen and could be categorized as Peckerwood Noir, if there were such a thing.

The two main characters are Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke, sporting a very flimsy mustache), and they have no future before they are lured into becoming drug couriers. Kyle is the strong silent type. Swin is the wise-cracking sidekick. Neither knows what he’s doing. And neither is prepared for what’s headed their way as they start working for a fake park ranger (John Malkovich), a woman known only as Her (Vivica A. Fox) and a supposed drug kingpin, Frog.

In the book by John Brandon, from which the screenplay is adapted, the identity of Frog is a big secret. And it indeed is a secret being held from Kyle and Swin throughout most of the movie. But the movie’s viewers see the rise of Frog in various flashbacks early on, and it’s not a spoiler to say that he is portrayed by Vince Vaughn.

In typical noir, the strong silent type attracts the attention of a woman, a femme fatale, a Lauren Bacall type who knows how to backtalk to tough guys. In the quirky “Arkansas,” however, the hunky Hemsworth is not the lover. Instead, it’s the schlubby Duke character, Swin, who gets the girl, after he approaches her while eating a fried chicken leg at a Piggly Wiggly. The woman, Johnna, played by Eden Brolin, resists his overtures at first, but tells him that she might kiss him after the first five dates.

It’s important to note that the woman is the daughter of Josh Brolin, who was the star of 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. She has the Coen brothers banter down pat, and so does Clark, the writer/director/star.

Although Clark’s Swin has the funniest lines, there’s no doubt that the star of “Arkansas” is Hemsworth. He opens and closes the film, and his opening is quite something, as if he’s looking back at his career and has seen it all. He says to the camera that he has been a member of the Dixie Mafia, but he immediately dismisses that term, mainly because there’s no family code, no ethnically Italian connection, no loyalty. Instead, he says that drug runners in the South are “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags.”

A lot of the movie introduces us to those deadbeats and scumbags. Kyle and Swin sometimes appear to be minnows swimming among the sharks. But as they — and Frog — meet a seemingly never-ending line of scumbags, you begin to wonder whether anybody is really in charge. Among the most notable scumbags is Almond, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who was the memorable Omar Little on “The Wire.”

But while Hemsworth is the star, the real revelation in “Arkansas” is writer/director Duke. He’s no heartthrob. He’s a Jack Black-type guy, and that’s not an insult. He has a knack for directing and writing and making us laugh, and he probably has a long career ahead of him.

He’s an Arkansas native, born in Glenwood, and is best known for his roles in “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “Hot Tub Time Machine 2,” “Kick-Ass” and “Kick-Ass 2.” You get the idea. We’re not talking Tolstoy and “Anna Karenina.” But “Arkansas” indicates that he has some depth — and might have a future as a serious filmmaker.

“Arkansas”
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, Clark Duke, Vivica A. Fox, Ede Brolin and John Malkovich
Directed by: Clark Duke
Screenplay by: Clark Duke and Andrew Boonkrong, based on the novel by John Brandon
Running time: 115 minutes
Rating: R, for lots and lots of violence and drug material

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin Americaan-Statesman.

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