Arkansas

          "Arkansas" is one of those offbeat, ironic kind of low-budget films that present characters nobody can like, but you get interested in them, anyway.  Swin (Clark Duke, who also wrote and directed) is an unlikely-looking drug dealer.  He's chubby and baby-faced and talks in a high-pitch whine.  His topknot looks ridiculous and so does his pencil-thin mustache, like an eighth-grader who's proud of attaining puberty.  He brags that last year he was in grad school, and he sometimes philosophizes about how the post-apocalyptic society really just has no direction or purpose.  Neither does Swin, except he does befriend Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), and together they manage to get themselves entangled in a low-level drug deal.  They decide they don't have anything better to do.  The money's OK and they don't really have to work very hard, but they meet some real characters along the way.  One of them is Bright (John Malkovich), a Park Ranger who doubles as a drug dealer.  He tells his minions that they have to do everything he says, don't fraternize with the locals, and that they can't run away, because if they do, he'll hunt them down and kill them.  He also tells them they need a regular job as a "cover," so he hires Swin and Kyle as "Assistant Rangers," which basically means they do cleanup.  Bright says that he's just a middleman;  the next higher up is named Her, because she doesn't want to give a name, and she knows the real boss, who calls himself Frog (Vince Vaughan). 

           Once we meet him, masquerading as a small pawn shop owner with a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, always listening to the ball game on the radio, we frolic down memory lane to the back story of how he managed to get where he is, mainly  by murderous treachery, of course, which is the only way anybody ever advances in that line of work.  In the meantime, Swin develops a girlfriend, after he's been told not to, because, well, he thinks of himself as charming. She's not exactly an innocent, but when their relationship actually develops, Swin surprises himself by realizing that he's become every bit as conventional as he thought he was avoiding by embracing a life of crime.  The dialogue is nearly weightless, peppered with non sequiturs.  The characters all seem to be randomly wandering through their own lives, with no visible connection to the "real" world.   It would be considered post-modernist, except it's not that pretentious.  But it does establish Clark Duke as a chronicler with a savvy wit and an ear for casual dysfunction, spiraling down toward nihilism.  It would be interesting to see what he would do with a more ambitious script and a bigger production budget.  

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association