Actor and “Bear State” native Clark Duke (The Office, Kick-Ass, Hot Tub Time Machine) shows he has good taste by opening his directorial debut with a quote from Charles Portis, an author of such cult-inspiring comic invention that he’s been compared to Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, and Tom Wolfe. Most of the fuss about Portis stems from his 1968 novel True Grit, which Hollywood adapted twice, once with an Oscar-winning John Wayne and then a Coen brothers version with Jeff Bridges. But if you want the cream of this Dixie yarn-spinner’s crop, check out 1979’s The Dog of the South, a tale of deadly doings that brims over with deadpan humor and internal monologues that sing on the page. Bill Hader has been promising for years to make a film version. While we’re waiting, here’s the quote from the novel that Duke uses to kickstart his own Portis-flavored movie: “A lot of people leave Arkansas, and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”
Excuse the rambling introduction, but rambling is what Arkansas is all about. And not being able to achieve “escape velocity” is at its core. Take Kyle, the improbably handsome and impeccably groomed drunk embodied by Liam Hemsworth. “I’m a drug dealer, bottom rung,” Kyle describes himself, adding that “organized crime in the South is not that organized, just a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags.” That’s how Kyle links up with Swin, winningly played by Duke as an unjustifiably over-confidant scam artist with a wispy mustache and a wardrobe made up of Hawaiian shirts and track pants.
“Are you one of those witty people?” Kyle asks with annoyance. “I’ve been called worse,” says the amiable Swin. And a mismatched partnership is born. At the request of their unseen boss named Frog (Vince Vaughn), the boys run a truckload of drugs out of state only to be stopped by Bright (John Malkovich taking quirky to the max), a park ranger who pegs them correctly as amateurs. No matter since Bright is also on the Frogman’s payroll and able to set them up with covers as junior rangers. Bright’s rules include no fraternizing with locals, which prompts Swin to hit on Johnna (Eden Brolin), an employee at the Piggly Wiggly who tells Swin he’s creepy. “Do you like creepy?” asks Swin. The maybe look she gives Swin is deliciously funny and Brolin (daughter of Josh, Thanos himself) is a find whose fresh comic timing comes with genuine emotional nuance.
Where’s all this going? If narrative drive is your thing, steer clear of Arkansas, which revels in an appealing randomness that becomes its saving grace. The animating action kicks in when a livewire Vaughn makes his appearance as Frog. And not just an appearance, we get Frog’s backstory, about how he learned his criminal trade and the importance of “cost analysis” from Almond (the always-electric Michael Kenneth Williams) and then took over himself by any means necessary. Frog’s cohort — played by Vivica A. Fox, and known only as Her to avoid wiretaps — keeps an eye out as the violence escalates. “I like boys like you,” she tells Kyle and Swin. “They don’t get hung up on living a long life.”
Frog, who let’s say to avoid spoilers hides in plain sight, likes the fact that Kyle and Swin are dim bulbs he can easily manipulate: “Whether they have a plan or they’re just lost in a maze of their own fuck-ups don’t matter.”
What does matter, besides the collection of deranged characters who can’t escape their limitations, is the southern-fried atmosphere so resonantly captured by DP Steven Meizler (Contagion). Though there is a brutal scene shot in one of the famous bathhouses of Hot Springs — the hometown of Clark Duke and Bill Clinton — most of Arkansas was actually filmed in Alabama to take advantage of tax incentives. The irony seems only right for a film in which time and place are basically states of mind. Duke, working from a script he and Andrew Boonkrong carved out a 2008 book by John Brandon, fares best at catching the vibe of characters going nowhere in no particular hurry. The rush toward a coherent ending defeats the purpose. Kyle had previously told us: “I always suspected that I didn’t want the desirable things in life — women, cars, houses — the things people use to chisel out a tidy philosophy of life. I was just as pleased to get drunk or drink a bunch and not get drunk.” If those words speak to you, Arkansas is a movie destination that won’t disappoint. Once scheduled to premiere in March at SXSW, this tasty trifle ambles onto VOD at just the right time for pandemic-weary audiences to bask in their own longing for escape velocity.