Adapting a distinctive literary voice probably isn’t the easiest task a first-time director can choose, so credit is due actor Clark Duke for heading very much thataway with his feature debut behind the camera. “Arkansas” has an idiosyncratic, novelistic feel in large part because it’s based on an idiosyncratic novel — which was the 2008 debut for John Brandon, who’s published three more fiction volumes since.
Duke and Andrew Boonkrong’s screenplay isn’t strictly faithful to that source material, but retains enough of the original author’s droll detachment from a nihilistic story to lend this tale of deadly intrigue among Southern drug runners an off-kilter, non-formulaic appeal. Not everything here works, including some lead casting. But this daylight noir should please viewers willing to roll along with a crime meller more interested in character quirks than action thrills. It launches on various home platforms May 5.
Nominally shifting our primary identification from the figure played here by Vince Vaughn, while retaining the book’s chaptered alternation between viewpoints, the film opens by introducing rootless, short-tempered Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), who says, “I never needed a philosophy of life” because he was “just pleased to get drunk.” Despite that lack of ambition, he gets nudged up from the bottom rung of a drug-dealing ring in the South, where even organized crime “isn’t that organized.”
As part of that promotion, he’s paired with Swin (Duke), a garrulous squirt as heedlessly outgoing as Kyle is antisocial. They’re soon relocated to an Arkansas state park, where an actual ranger by the name of Bright (John Malkovich) puts them to work as assistants. However, this is just a cover for the drug-running they continue to do all over the South, under the direction of an unseen mystery boss dubbed Frog, with a sometimes-seen woman simply known as “Her” (Vivica A. Fox) acting as go-between.
It’s a slightly dull but not-bad life, particularly once Swin acquires a local girlfriend in the form of Johnna (Eden Brolin). (Misanthropic Kyle doesn’t appear to similarly require romance, or even sex.) But after a run to Louisiana that proves unpleasant, the duo are trailed home by that client’s (Barry Primus) disgruntled grandson (Chandler Duke, Clark’s sibling), with results that drastically shift the whole operation’s dynamic. Left to fend for themselves, Kyle and Swin seem to accrue a pile of bodies, while waiting for the seeming inevitability of their own violent demise.
Meanwhile, the narrative periodically winds back to the saga of that man known as Frog (Vaughn), another cryptic loner first met as a Memphis pawn shop owner in the mid-1980s. His criminal activities gradually escalate until he’s forced into high-tailing it to Little Rock, where contact Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams) sets him up in the local drug trade. That goes well — for Frog, that is, if not several unlucky associates — so he’s eventually able to let others do all the dirty work. It is in this late-career role of invisible “Dixie Mafia” don that he’s destined to cross paths with the hapless Swin and Kyle.
“Arkansas” isn’t at all interested in drugs as a social problem (we never even meet any addicts), or as a law-enforcement one. Instead, its whole attention is focused on the various oddballs who land in this furtive, semi-underground “profession” for no apparent reason beyond the fact that they wouldn’t likely fit anywhere else. There’s a sly, laconic tenor to the goings-on here, its unruffled regard of the violent and outrageous recalling
such literary rural absurdists as Flannery O’Connor (to whom Brandon has been compared) and Thomas McGuane.
That’s a tricky pitch to sustain onscreen, complicated further by the segmented, a-chronological storytelling. Duke largely manages to pull it off, however, his smooth craftsmanship taking just the right degree of undercutting irony from an original score by freak folker Devendra Banhart and frequent producer-collaborator Noah Georgeson. There’s also soundtrack room for several barroom classics by the likes of Hank Williams Jr., Larry Gatlin and Robbie Robertson, as re-interpreted by indie rock darlings the Flaming Lips, who duly appear to play incognito in a bar scene.
What doesn’t work so well is the last stretch, which aims at a more mournful, serious tone than relatively breezy earlier events have earned. It’s also a flaw that the two characters who’ll ultimately square off are the most problematically cast. The other performers usefully fill in their roles’ blanks with colorful confidence, with Malkovich and Williams contributing particularly flavorful turns. But as in last year’s “Killerman,” handsome Hemsworth can’t quite summon the edginess to convince as another figure doomed to society’s criminal margins, while the usually reliable Vaughn never seems to get a handle on complicated, shadowy Frog. (Nor, disconcertingly, does Vaughn make any effort at appearing to age between the story’s two vaguely defined time periods, which are separated by at least a couple decades.) In their different ways, both actors fail to provide ambiguous key characters the shading they need. Without it, the whole story lacks cumulative gravity.
If that key miscasting doesn’t sink “Arkansas,” it nonetheless much reduces the impact when a narrative hitherto rather leisurely and anecdotal suddenly depends on suspenseful knife-twists of fate. Still, this is a good movie whose skillful, accessible eccentricity offers rewards enough that it seems churlish to complain that it falls short of being great.