Many new films have deferred release dates, and cinemas keep reminding us to watch at home the films they can’t show. ‘The olden days,’ Anthony Lane said in a recent, very funny New Yorker piece, ‘ended a few months ago.’ Those were the days when ‘humans went to the movies’. It’s also true that the olden days had long been invaded by other habits. We did still go to a crowded cinema to see a film we’d been waiting for. But the crowd wasn’t guaranteed: we could also – as I often did – see films in cinemas entirely empty of other humans. The size of the screen, and the sound that you couldn’t moderate, made a difference to the experience, but mainly it felt as though you were watching a movie on demand in someone else’s strangely furnished spare room.
In any case, there are plenty of new films to see at home, even if we have to wait for renewed acquaintance with Wonder Woman, the Black Widow and James Bond. Among the best of the recent releases is Arkansas (US only so far), directed by Clark Duke, perhaps best known for playing Clark Green in the American version of The Office. He has directed films before, but only short ones.
The film opens well, but not in a way that prepares us for what is to come. We will be better prepared, perhaps, if we have noticed that John Malkovich is on the cast list, playing a Southern park ranger, a bit of impeccably unlikely casting matched only by the same actor’s recent appearance as Hercule Poirot on the BBC. The opening is very smooth, and just a little too noir for its own good. Kyle (played by Liam Hemsworth) sits in a room looking lonely, and telling us in voiceover that everything is OK. He’s not looking for success, women, pleasure or what he calls a ‘philosophy of life’. He’s a drug runner, and his needs are taken care of. Not that organised crime in Arkansas or other Southern states resembles its counterparts in other parts of the US, places where the Italians or Mexicans are in charge. ‘It’s not that organised,’ he says. ‘Just a loose affiliation of deadbeats and scumbags.’ A man tries to enter the room; Kyle manhandles him and locks him in a cupboard. Then a colleague shows up, saying he’s come to wait for someone, possibly in order to kill them. Kyle suggests that the person in the cupboard might be the individual in question, and is promoted for being ahead of the game. He used to be ‘near the bottom rung’ of the organisation: now he’s not quite so near.
His first assignment in the new era brings him a partner and a consignment of goods to deliver. This is where the film changes. The partner is Swin, played by Clark Duke as a round, short man with a faint moustache, hair tied back in a bun, and a great knack for repartee. When Kyle says Swin reminds him of a game-show host, Swin says: ‘It strikes me that if you want to be the strong silent type, you really got to keep yourself from commenting on every little thing.’ If Kyle is trying to be the gloomy cool gangster, Swin is succeeding as the cheery offbeat comedian who has wandered in from another movie. Except that this is his movie. And this is also where Malkovich, alias Bright the ranger, appears. He’s looking at the truck Kyle and Swin have parked, with all the merchandise in it, and Kyle pulls a gun on him, ready to get them all into more trouble than they can manage. Bright laughs and explains that he is their immediate boss in the drug racket. He has a place for them to live, and recites to them what sounds like the Apostles’ Creed for criminal underlings: ‘I am the boss. You may never refuse an order and you may never quit. If you decide to run off, I will hunt you down and kill you, no matter how much I’ve grown to like you.’ Later in the movie Vince Vaughn – as Frog, the organisation’s big boss – reels off exactly the same rules. These guys may not be organised but they certainly know how to memorise a script.
There is only one more real event in the movie. Something goes wrong and Kyle and Swin are left with a lot of money on their hands. What happens next isn’t silence, far from it, but it’s not action either. Kyle and Swin don’t want to run off with the money because they think that would get them killed. They wait for instructions from higher up and don’t receive any. They are suspicious of snoopers, and bump one of them off as a kind of incidental gesture. They meet Frog a couple of times without realising who he is. And while they wait and wait, we get the backstory of Frog and his organisation. There are cameos involving a glamorous character known simply as ‘Her’, nicely overacted by Vivica A. Fox as if she was a Bond villainess. And Swin settles down into a steady relationship with Johnna, a girl he has picked up, or rather a girl who allows him to imagine he has picked her up. We could think of this relationship as something else that happens in the movie, but it doesn’t feel like a happening. It feels like a break from the rest of the film, just as Swin, on his first appearance, seemed to signal a switch of genre. Johnna, played by Eden Brolin, is dottier than Swin, and also quietly practical about everything, a combination more or less impossible to imagine if you haven’t seen it. When she gets pregnant Swin is delighted and asks her to marry him. She refuses, explaining that they are ‘still in the infatuation stage’ and need to ‘wait until we’re not attracted to each other any more to make a decision about marriage’. ‘What if that never happens?’ he asks. ‘Just give it time,’ she says. In another mood, she worries about what will happen to her if Swin and Kyle are arrested or killed – and it’s hard to imagine they won’t be.
Arkansas is written by Duke with Andrew Boonkrong, based on a 2008 novel by John Brandon. A lot of the good lines come from the book, but the sense that this is a movie pretending to lose its way must arise from the script as well as from the excellent, slightly out-of-tune acting. Language is constantly in question, or in disguise. A gangster is reported as saying: ‘Time is of the essence.’ ‘He said that?’ someone asks, surprised. ‘Well, he said: “Hurry the hell up.”’ This kind of doubt about reported speech keeps creeping in: did the man say ‘shit like that’, or was it ‘inconsequential falsehoods’? Frog, told he doesn’t know anything about drug dealing in Oklahoma, says to himself: ‘If Arkansas is what I say it is, Oklahoma is what I say it is.’ There’s power for you. Or delusion. ‘What I say it is’ could be a motto for the movie, from the first Swin dialogue through the whole performances of Malkovich and Vaughn. It’s not that the boast is always true: it is often disastrously not, as this movie takes pleasure in showing. But words make a lot of difference, and how we think of Swin and Johnna depends on the way they speak.
This is why Arkansas in many ways feels more like a play or a talk show than a movie, and why it can be very funny when there doesn’t seem much to laugh at. The settings and images and camera movements support the dialogue rather than doing anything of their own. Reviewers have mentioned the works of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers as models, and the connection makes sense if we’re thinking about atmosphere. But Arkansas is not, as their films are, saturated in cinephiliac memory – far from it. This is neither a defect nor a merit, just a sort of immunity, and it is perhaps why the movie works so well on the screen at home. The bonus is that you can rewind to check the quotations.