Amiably paced with comfortable, lived-in performances, “Arkansas” isn’t so much a crime drama or dark comedy as a depiction of a world in which illegal activities and their aftermath are simply part of a way of life.
The movie opens with a quotation from crime novelist Charles Portis and is populated with the sort of flaky, beleaguered lower-rung criminals that Elmore Leonard novels are chock full of. Adapted from the 2008 novel “Arkansas” by John Brandon, the movie is the feature directing debut for actor Clark Duke, known for his roles in the “Kick-Ass” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” films. Duke also cowrote the screenplay with Andrew Boonkrong.
In the film, Liam Hemsworth plays Kyle, while Duke plays Swin, two low-level employees of an enigmatic regional drug kingpin named Frog whom neither has ever met. Thrown together as drug couriers, they encounter all manner of oddballs and outlaws, played by the likes of John Malkovich, Michael K. Williams, Vivica A. Fox and Vince Vaughn.
The film’s deep cast is impressive, and as a director, Duke is wise enough to give each performer a spotlight moment. Hemsworth in particular feels at home in this low-key world, giving a performance of charm and depth reminiscent of Channing Tatum’s similar turn in the heist comedy “Logan Lucky.”
Hemsworth’s character admits early on that he doesn’t aspire to much and that he doesn’t want much from life. And yet it is his drifting, indifferent attitude that finds him sinking lower and lower as the people he associates with become seedier and more dangerous. In a voice-over, he explains how organized crime in the South is different from the famed mafia syndicates and crime cartels in that “it’s not that organized … just a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags.”
The dynamic between Kyle and Swin is a curious one, as they are thrown together by circumstance and never quite fully become friends. They in essence remain work colleagues, with a certain amount of affection and understanding between them but also an ever-present distance. With his top-knot man-bun and cultivated mustache, Swin in particular always seems out of place in this violent world of criminals. At one point, Swin muses while burying a body that only a year ago he had been in grad school. Life, huh?
The film’s stately, slightly ominous score is composed by Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson, while the soundtrack is sprinkled with mid-American radio staples as performed by the Flaming Lips. (The band also appears in one scene, playing George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in a roadhouse bar.)
Is “Arkansas” a great film? No. Is it far better than it might be or even needs to be? Indeed it is. But most of all it is unexpectedly fun, drawing you through its world of not-very-good-at-this criminals, low-lifes and people who want little more than to just hang about with verve and panache. And that makes it a place worth visiting.
Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes
Playing: Available on demand