Some films can survive the coronavirus better than others. Some — the quieter ones, the documentaries, the character studies — don’t need a big screen or a raucous film-festival audience or a packed house to make their pleasures known. Some can do quite well in front of a living-room audience of one or two.
“Arkansas” is not one of those films.
Of all the films that have been forced to go straight to streaming and VOD because of theater closings and film-festival cancellations due to COVID-19, Clark Duke’s offbeat black comedy might be the one that most misses its original release format. The film was to have premiered in the Austin Convention Center at the South by Southwest Film Festival — and if ever a film was made for a big, rowdy festival crowd with an appreciation for off-the-wall humor, it is this one.
Now, you can’t hold that against “Arkansas,” which was meant to be seen one way and is now forced to be seen in a different way. And it’s possible to appreciate the Lionsgate film’s quirks on your couch alone or with the family, particularly if you’ve got a taste for this kind of thing and a weird family.
But “Arkansas” would have killed at SXSW, and it struggles to do that with an isolation-friendly release. Its characters, though, would have understood: Stuff happens, it’s not pretty, you deal with it.
Those characters are aptly summed up in a voiceover at the beginning of the film from Kyle Ribb, a low-level drug dealer for a mysterious kingpin named Frog. Admitting that when you think of organized crime, you think of professional outfits like the Mafia, he says that organized crime in the South is “a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags,” which is a pretty apt description of the folks we spend the next two hours with.
Liam Hemsworth plays Kyle as a guy with equal parts malaise and anger; sent on an errand for Frog, he’s teamed up with Swin Horn (Duke, who is acting as well as making his directorial debut), a whiny dweeb who’s nonetheless convinced of his own brilliance. When a girl he’s trying to pick up in a supermarket says, “You’re just creepy,” Swin’s response is a quick, “Do you like creepy?” And what’s more, the line works.
Kyle and Swin are the classic odd couple, reluctant partners who find themselves in deeper and deeper trouble as they meet the goofy but dangerous ne’er-do-wells who inhabit Frog’s orbit: John Malkovich as Bright, a ranger who’s not nearly as befuddled as he looks; Vivica A. Fox as Her, whose name of choice prevents her from being identified on wiretaps; Brad William Henke and Jeff Chase as the lunkheaded henchmen Tim and Thomas.
To say it all gets messy is to state the obvious — and besides, the details are kind of beside the point. As Frog says of Kyle and Swin at one point, “Whether they have a plan or they’re just lost in a maze of their own f— ups don’t matter.”
Based on the novel by John Brandon and co-written by Duke and Andrew Boonkrong, “Arkansas” is a Dixie noir, a time-jumping, blackly comic crime story that exists in the post-“Pulp Fiction,” post-Coen brothers world. And that means the stuff that goes down – the double-crossing, the murders, the gradual unveiling of Frog, who’s played by Vince Vaughn – is less important than the tone, the casual bits of backwoods absurdity, the offhand lines that register only after they’ve gone by.
This is a movie where wannabe gangsters get their start selling bootleg cassettes out of antique booths, where a drug dealer played by Michael Kenneth Williams tutors his protégé in “cost-benefit analysis” and where the bar musicians playing a pained version of a George Jones song are the loopy indie band the Flaming Lips, who also pop up on the soundtrack overhauling songs by the Band, Hank Williams Jr. and the Bellamy Brothers.
While it’s hard to watch “Arkansas” and not see its debt to the Coen brothers, Duke finds a voice of his own in quiet, deadpan absurdities and southern-fried eccentricities. It’s just too bad the movie can’t be seen in a room full of (other) twisted people who’ll catch all the nonsense and supply the energy to counterbalance the film’s deliberate torpor.
But if the film is flatter without an audience, it’s weird however you watch it. And maybe that’s enough.
“Arkansas” is available on-demand Tuesday, May 5.