As far as states go, Arkansas usually doesn’t get much respect. In a country where much of the culture is dominated by city-dwelling secular liberals, Arkansas is a state the remains stubbornly rural, religious, and conservative. If your grandparents were a state, they’d probably look a lot like Arkansas. Arkansas is viewed as being old-fashioned and when it does make the news, it’s usually not for anything that anyone in the state particularly wants to brag about. Democrats will always view Arkansas as being the home of Mike Huckabee. Republicans will never forgive the state for springing the Clintons on the rest of the nation. (Interestingly enough, Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton both grew up in the same tiny town.) Little Rock has gangs and government corruption. Hot Springs has gamblers looking to hide out from the mob. Fouke has the Boggy Creek Monster while Ft. Smith is best-known for having once been home to the hanging judge, Isaac Parker. You get the idea. When it comes to the way that the rest of the country views the state, it often seems as if poor Arkansas just can’t catch a break.
With all that in mind, I have to say that I really love Arkansas. My paternal grandparents lived in Arkansas and I’ve still got relatives all over the state. Arkansas was one of the many states where my family lived while I was growing up. (The others were — deep breath — Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Louisiana.) We would stay in Arkansas for months at a time, depending on how well my mom and dad were getting along at the time. It’s an unpretentious state, one that’s full of friendly, no-nonsense people and beautiful countryside. I have a lot of good memories of Arkansas. It’s always in the back of my mind that, wherever I’m living, I can always just go back to Arkansas and spend the rest of my life living in a small town with my cousins. Of course, I’d probably end up miserable over the lack of movie theaters. Whenever I’m living in the city, I find myself yearning for the simplicity and decency of the country. Whenever I’m in the country, I find myself missing the excitement of the city.
The Natural State (as Arkansas is officially nicknamed) is not only the setting for some of my most cherished memories. It’s also the setting for a film called, appropriately enough, Arkansas. The directorial debut of actor Clark Duke, Arkansas tells the story of four very different men. Kyle Ribb (Liam Hemsworth) is quiet and rather stoic. Swin Horn (Clark Duke) is talkative, eccentric, and perhaps a bit too cocky for his own good. They both work at a national park, where their boss is a veteran ranger named Bright (John Malkovich). Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to notice that neither Kyle nor Ribb really seem to do much work at the park. And, for that matter, Bright certainly does own a big and impressive house for someone who has spent the majority of his life as a ranger….
Kyle, Swin, and Bright are actually drug dealers. They transport drugs all over the southern half of the United States. Kyle and Swin are supervised by Bright. Bright, meanwhile, reports to the mysterious Frog. Kyle and Swin have never actually met Frog and there are rumors that he might not even exist. Of course, the film has already revealed to us that Frog (played by Vince Vaughn) does exist and is a local pawnshop owner.
Kyle narrates the film, informing us that the difference between Southern organized crime and Northern organized crime is that, in the South, it’s not all that organized. As Kyle explains it, the infamous Dixie Mafia is not so much an organization as it’s just a collection of undisciplined lowlifes who have no real integrity or loyalty to anyone else. When you become a drug dealer in the South, you’re a drug dealer for life. There’s no going back if you change your mind. You start out at the bottom of the ladder and, whenever someone above you if either murdered or imprisoned, you get your chance to move up. No one is ever sure who is working for who or who can be trusted. Every order from the boss is examined and re-examined as the two dealers try to figure out whether or not they’ve won the trust of the mysterious Frog.
Unfortunately for Kyle and Swin, a misunderstanding leads to violence and several deaths. With no way to directly communicate with Frog to let him know what exactly happened, Kyle and Swin know that their lives could be in danger. The film follows Kyle and Swin as they prepare for their ultimate meeting with Frog while, at the same time, detailing in flashback how Frog himself eventually came to his position of power. Throughout the entire film, we watch as history repeats itself. As Kyle said, once you’re a drug dealer, you’re a drug dealer for life.
Arkansas is a surprisingly low-key film. Kyle, Swin, Bright, and Frog all manage to be both very laid back and very aggressive at the same time. (Anyone who has spent anytime with a large group of rednecks will understand what I’m talking about.) As a director, Clark Duke is as interested in capturing the rhythms of every day life in Arkansas as he is in orchestrating the inevitable violence that results from all of the film’s betrayals and mistakes and some of the best scenes in the film just feature Kyle and Swin talking about nothing in particular while driving down the interstate. The film’s mix of cheerful goofiness and existential horror will be familiar to anyone who has ever gotten lost on the way to Hot Springs.
Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke are sympathetic in the lead roles, though Hemsworth’s Southern accent does slip a few times. Swin meets a woman (Eden Brolin) in a grocery store and their subsequent romance manages to be both creepy and touching at the same time. John Malkovich is, as usual, wonderfully eccentric. That said, the film is pretty much dominated by Vince Vaughn, who plays Frog as being both dangerously ruthless and also as someone who understands that his eventual downfall is inevitable. Frog came to power by betraying his boss and, as played by Vaughn, Frog is very much aware that he’s destined to eventually be betrayed as well. Frog has made peace with both his place in the world and the reality of his situation and, in many ways, that makes him an even more dangerous character than he would be otherwise. He has nothing to lose and he knows it.
Obviously, I liked Arkansas, both the state and the movie. It’s an well-done work of Southern pulp.