The directorial debut from home-state-kid-made-good Clark Duke is called “Arkansas” and will hit streaming services May 5, his 35th birthday. It’s a strangely sweet tale of drug trafficking and friendship and decent people doing bad things when pushed, and arrives as a welcome Southern neo-noir at a moment when Arkansas remains one of the few states not to impose statewide directives on movement or closures amid a worldwide viral pandemic. The spring of 2020 will go down as a monumentally disappointing moment to try and launch a film — it was supposed to land at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March ‘til that got canceled. But at the very least, it lands as its namesake state rings in the zeitgeist: as a blithely lawless state where the mere act of leaving your house carries the ring of bad-idea rebellion. There are worse moments to spend a couple of hours hanging out with some up-and-coming drug traffickers on your computer.
Your leads are Kyle (Liam, the littlest Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke, in fine schlubby form). They’re errand boys for a shadowy kingpin named Frog, who for all they know might not actually exist. The depiction of the drug trade here as, in Kyle’s words, “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags” feels about right. Dealers and gofers make drops from the backs of pickups, in coolers and soccer balls, in any sort of setting — a gas station, a fireworks barn, a donut shop. A detour through 1985-vintage West Memphis and Pine Bluff (two places forever rocking that retro feel) show us Frog’s rise from pawnshop owner to low-key kingpin. Mildest of spoilers: Frog is real and he’s played by Vince Vaughn as a charmer and a Machiavellian dreamer whose true idea of a good time is just listening to the Cards on the radio. Casting him and Michael Kenneth Williams (forever Omar from “The Wire”) as his old-school mentor were both bullseyes.
Frog stays hidden but makes himself felt when a park ranger (John Malkovich) approaches Kyle and Swin and lets them know the new score: They’ve got to live on the park grounds as cover, and they’ll be working under him, on Frog’s orders. They do their best to keep their noses clean, but as you might guess, events conspire against them, and they start to look like a liability to their bosses, who are the sort who don’t exactly lay off their problem employees.
Duke hails from Glenwood, a 6-square-mile burg in the Ouachitas, and at 34, with a string of acting credits and now a feature film director, he is the lone name listed on the town’s Wikipedia page “notable person” subhed. His performance here is a big reason the film feels so amiable and jangly, especially set against Hemsworth’s Kyle, a protagonist whose best, most introspective lines arrive as voiceover. Kyle’s sensible and cautious, opposed to guns except in a dire pinch. He’s got more promise as a criminal than Swin because he doesn’t want for much: stuff, girls, drinking, a future. That lack of desire makes him hard to get inside of, a weakness of the film. But it allows him to brace his friend’s foibles, the most enduring of which is a romance with a local named Johnna (Eden Brolin, charmingly). Swin approaches her at the grocery store as he’s licking chicken grease off his fingers. She declines him; he pushes his luck; she agrees to go out but says he won’t get a kiss until after five dates. Bad news for that first date, maybe, but a good sign that she’s gonna clear her calendar for a while.
The film feels saggy in places, sort of loose and distractible — all the vibe of a road trip, but without the timetable. It’s not a bad pick for a quarantine season where we’re all fixed in place, chilling as an antidote to atmospheric paranoia. The dealers vouch for the upside of boredom, as articulated by Malkovich’s ranger: “It’s better to have to look for something to do than have something to do look for you.” A taut, hard-boiled thriller this isn’t. It’s closer to a meditation on a place and a people who don’t ascribe to a particular philosophy. Which, given the title and the setting of the film — and, hell, even the inauspicious moment of its release — feels rakishly appropriate.