Arkansas is what you make it, mutters one character in his contemplation on the business of drug dealing. What the film Arkansas aims to be is an off-beat and thoughtful thriller. In the same realm of Fargo, it’s a movie of regional quirks and dark minutiae amid unique characters. It’s exactly the kind of absorbing drama that entices more than the mere dealing of drugs or the survival of criminals.
From Here to the 1980s
Staged in a non-linear fashion, the film follows two stories in Arkansas of criminals that collide. In the present day, drug dealer Kyle Ribb (Liam Hemsworth) is rising in the ranks. He’s paired up with the eccentric Swin Horn (Clark Duke), a mustached man so sure of himself he believes everyone will be his friend. They venture up to a national park where their new boss of the eloquent Bright (John Malkovich) gives them jobs and alibis while they hustle drugs around the area.
In the film’s division into chapters, we go back to the 1980s where the pawnshop owner Frog (Vince Vaughn) stumbles into a new business. He moves into the area of drugs and soon realizes he needs to be more cautious. He arms himself as he progresses in the world of drug dealing that requires one to be constantly on their feet. Watching him carefully navigate a realm of violence and dirty deals are as profound as it is intense.
Deals Gone Wrong
Keeping with that dryly quirky vibe akin to Fargo, the events that bring the likes of Kyle and Swin towards Frog is a series of unique situations. It isn’t too long before the duo of the present find themselves handing a messy murder and handling a drug empire. This new development plops in their lap from seemingly looking at one person the wrong way. How they handle the situation is one where they try to remain as calm and focused as they can. That’s not an easy task for this line of work with much brutality and scummy characters.
The matter is all the more complicated by Swin’s ambitions. Early in their gig, Swin sets his sights on the working class Johnna (Eden Brolin) and hits it off quickly. She becomes so involved that it’s inevitable she will witness her new boyfriend in an act of crime. When that shoe drops, it’s horrifying in its own weirdly dark manner of Swin assuring her this is okay. It won’t be okay but this is their life.
Acting in Arkansas
The cast is on point here by never overdoing and underperforming their roles. Hemsworth plays his role sternly straight yet rising to intimidation when need be. Duke, known for playing the obnoxious friend in various films, surprises with smarts behind his egotism. And Vaughn just melts into the role of a drug dealer who has seen much in his line of work and keeps quiet when need be. They choose their words wisely and speak in a manner that breathes with novel noir, even if one weren’t to know this was based on a book.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the picture is that Clark Duke makes his directorial debut. He divides up the many chapters beautifully and gives them plenty of room to breathe. There’s just enough space of quiet to let the tension simmer of every scene. This firm control of the atmosphere allows Duke to explore some interesting paths. While the Coen aspect seems apparent in most darkly comedic moments, there’s an air of David Lynch in the more sinister moments.
The Mystery of Crime
There are several sequences that take their time to let us ponder their placement. Consider when Kyle and Swin meet the oddly mysterious Her (Vivica A. Fox), the messenger of sorts who gives out orders. She lives a hermit lifestyle and apparently desires to die soon. She may seem to be the mastermind of the whole drug game and yet she doesn’t appear so. This woman seems underwhelming, yet still so surreal we want to believe she’s some greater power.
Her presence reveals a truth within the appeal of Arkansas. That the drug dealers are not some criminal masterminds for how successful they turn out to be. They’re just people who, regardless of their expertise in crime, can still make mistakes. They’re in about as much control as anyone else from any era would be.
Arkansas works strong for its neo-noir edge that turns out an intensely fascinating thriller. While few moments surprise as it moseys along, the time taken to slow down bodes well for this picture. Again, I have to stress how astounding it is that such a robust crime thriller came from the likes of Clark Duke. What an astounding debut and great use of Vaughn and Hemsworth at their full potential.
An intensely engaging neo-noir crime thriller with fantastic performances from Liam Hemsworth and Vince Vaughn.
- Brilliantly Brooding Atmosphere
- Great Performances
- Stellar Direction + Dialogue
- Lingers Perhaps Too Long on Quirks
- Mildly Underwhelming Climax