I don’t know what I expected from Clark Duke’s directorial debut, but it wasn’t this. Arkansas (adapted from John Brandon’s novel, adapted by Duke and Andrew Boonkrong and directed by Duke) opens with a Charles Portis quote from Dog Of The South: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”
The film goes on to do a pretty reasonable impression of a Southern noir comical crime story, in the vein of authors like Portis, Harry Crews, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, etc. The American South, if one were to extrapolate from these stories, is a place where comical bumblings, criminal enterprise, and fatalism about the inscrutability of the universe collide. Again, not the first thing I expected from the glib guy from Hot Tub Time Machine, but certainly a pleasant surprise.
The Arkansas-bred Duke, who shot a pilot with Michael Cera at Loyola Marymount and became an up-and-comer fresh out of college with roles in Hot Tub Time Machine and Kick-Ass in the early aughts, plays another “Clark Duke-esque” character (glasses, quippy, self-effacing) in Arkansas. “Swin,” one of many characters earning a living from criminality and without a regular name, eventually makes an odd couple with our protagonist, Kyle (played by Liam Hemsworth), an alienated, antisocial introvert, when the two are hired to drive a load of drugs to Arkansas. Hemsworth is classic movie star handsome, almost comically so, a strong silent type, in distinct contrast to Duke’s pudgy post-modern hypebeast with top knot and hammer pants. Their dynamic shouldn’t make sense but does because absurdity is sort of the point. As Kyle informs us via voiceover: “The thing about organized crime in the South is that it isn’t that organized.”
Knowing this helps us not question things like a heavy named “Frog” (Vince Vaughn) and a corrupt park ranger named “Bright” (John Malkovich). That’s sort of the thing about the Southern noir; it’s populated largely by oddballs and eccentrics. Not that those oddballs can’t still be dangerous. Arkansas has life-and-death stakes that it never treats as improv opportunities — what separates it from Southern-set screwballs like Logan Lucky and Knives Out. Arkansas isn’t a screwball, it’s more like existentialism slightly leavened with absurd comedy.
Every character in Arkansas is on their own quixotic journey, fatalistic and alienated and just sort of muddling through. Vince Vaughn’s Frog, a drug kingpin turned pawn shop owner (who feels like a slight variation on his character in True Detective season 2), doesn’t have some Tony Montana-esque plan to get money, women, and power by not breaking his balls. He’s just a guy trying to stay alive and eke out a living. For John Malkovich’s Bright, it’s hard to tell whether the Park Ranger gig is a handy cover for working in the drug business or whether the drug business was a handy way to become a Park Ranger. He’s got a little Frances McDormand-in-Fargo to him.
For Swin and Kyle, a life of crime seems more a means to avoid the rat race than a way to afford flashy cars and beautiful women. Kyle is like a Harry Crews protagonist — not exactly noble, eloquent, or uniquely skilled at any one thing. He’s the opposite of a striver. His main goal in life is to be left alone and his guiding philosophy is to just get on with things. As he explains in his opening voiceover, “I’ve always suspected that I didn’t want the desirable things in life as much as I should.”
It comes as something of a cruel discovery then when Swin and Kyle find that the criminal world seems to have just as many company policies and middle managers as the straight one. If it seems weird to watch a drug movie with no wealth porn or to see redneck characters who are meant to be relatable and comical bumblers in almost equal measure, that’s part of the beauty of Arkansas: it never gives you quite what you’re expecting.
Where gangster and mafioso stories so often seem epic, taking the shape of classic rise-and-fall narratives, Arkansas is elusive and ephemeral. Its characters struggle to survive against a universe that doesn’t really care about them. It’s not the most escapist quarantine content, but there’s a simple beauty to it.