Movie drug dealers crave that bling.
It often ends badly for them, but for a while they live like kings. The antihero in “Arkansas” sees the gig differently. Liam Hemsworth’s character has few ambitions. He just wants to get the job done and soak in life’s smaller pleasures.
It’s partly why “Arkansas” matters more than your average drug yarn. The rest of the credit falls at director Clark Duke’s feet. The actor turned auteur delivers a smart, quirky story and a villain we’ve never seen before.
Yes, Vince Vaughn’s career resurgence shows little sign of letting up.
Hemsworth stars as Kyle, a low-level gangster dealing drugs in the rural midwest. He’s teamed with Swin (Duke), a fellow grunt with more brains than ambitions.
Together, they work for the mysterious Frog (Vaughn), an unseen drug lord who pulls their strings, no questions asked. The introduction of Frog’s handlers (John Malkovich, Vivica A. Fox) complicates both the narrative and Kyle’s humble crime spree.
There’s murder, betrayal, and a heaping helping of confusion. Kyle and Swin aren’t dumb, but what they don’t know about the power structure behind their deals could hurt them.
“Arkansas” tears a page or two out of the Tarantino playbook. The violence isn’t as graphic, but the fuzzy storytelling and overlapping narratives are undeniably Quentin-esque. The results hardly feel like an homage or creative thievery.
Duke knows why he’s folding the story atop itself. There’s a purpose here, a rhythm to the jigs and jags “Arkansas” takes us on.
Vaughn’s performance holds the threads together, even if they seem eager to break at times. The “Wedding Crasher” finds a new way to brand evil, blending entrepreneur pluck and savagery. He’s sly and sophisticated, a man who knows the game and won’t take unnecessary chances.
Need another curveball?
Swin falls hard for Johnna (Eden Brolin, daughter of Josh), a local gal willing to put up with his oddball hours. They’re quite a duo, and screenwriter Duke takes better advantage of Johnna’s presence than others might.
Does everything click in “Arkansas” as expected? Not even close. Still, there’s a freshness to the approach, a sense of surprise than doesn’t stop until the final confrontation.
The film’s moral compass wobbles from start to finish. We’re meant to root for Kyle, but he frequently reveals why that’s a lousy choice. Hemsworth ensures we’re never too close to Kyle, a smart way to tackle the character. Still, a better actor would summon hidden levels in Kyle’s personality. The Aussie star doesn’t have that depth at his disposal, even if “Arkansas” might be his best screen performance to date.
Duke’s directorial debut could have careened off the rails or wallowed in its admittedly deep well of weird. The veteran actor doesn’t let that happen, keeping his fractured, fascinating story front and center.
HiT or Miss: “Arkansas” may be 2020’s nicest surprise, a sophisticated drug drama with thrills, surprises, and a villain for the ages.
A version of this article appears on HollywoodInToto.com.