It’s hard to think of a major American actor who looms quite like Vince Vaughn. Short men face all kinds of discrimination, but on a movie screen they do okay: Tom Cruise is miniature in the flesh but just the right size for a horizontal frame, and nobody watching him go through his action-movie paces will feel a subconscious anxiety that he’s about to hit his head on the top of the screen. The taller-than-average actor, on the other hand, is often a slightly unsettling presence, floating somewhere up above his co-stars, defying cinematic gravity and pushing at the limits imposed by the letterbox format.
For much of his career Vaughn has played this physical distinctiveness for laughs. He was a yammering twizzler, long and lithe and bendable, in Swingers, the movie that put him on the map, and after a few unsuccessful attempts at being a regular leading actor he found his groove in the Old School/Wedding Crashers school of comedy, playing big men who looked like the straight man only to reveal themselves as gonzo motor-mouths, wobbling towers with a rhetorical machine gun at the top.
Over the last decade, though, those parts mostly dried up. The broad big-budget comedy no less than other genres has been almost entirely marginalized by the special-effects blockbuster, and Vaughn’s comic style is a poor fit for an Avengers cameo: He’s a great talker but he isn’t the Robert Downey Jr. sort of quip artist, and his bigness carries a subtler sort of threat than the muscles of Captain America or the Hulk do.
So Vaughn has pursued an interesting down-market reinvention instead, tamping down his talkativeness and playing the heavy without a wink. In the last five years he’s played drill sergeants, career criminals, FBI agents, corrupt cops, and jailhouse vigilantes. He’s worked with Mel Gibson and the True Detective honcho Nic Pizzolatto; he’s made two movies, grisly and vivid, with S. Craig Zahler, the closest thing to a ’70s exploitation king working in cinema today. And unlike other older actors who pivot to violent melodrama — a Liam Neeson, say — he’s eschewed the vanity of action stardom, playing characters whose underworld skill sets don’t save them from foredoomed, unhappy ends.
The latest of these ill-fated big men is featured in Arkansas, a rambling Dixieland noir that might be the most star-studded movie released into circulation this month — which isn’t saying much, admittedly, given that the real slate of 2020 movies is still sitting on the shelf awaiting some post-coronavirus future. But Arkansas does have stars: It has Vaughn as Frog, the baleful kingpin of a southern drug business; it has the lesser Hemsworth brother, Liam, as Kyle, a slow-burning up-and-comer in the business; it even has John Malkovich, very much himself, as a drug dealer who maintains a comfy day job as Arkansas’s least plausible park ranger.
The director is Clark Duke, who also plays Kyle’s college-dropout partner, Swin; you may recognize the pudge of his face, hidden beneath a toothbrush-grade stache, from the not quite Vince Vaughn–caliber comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. Duke has ambitions to go with his impressive cast: His movie owes something to Elmore Leonard and something to Quentin Tarantino, but it has its own idiosyncratically Southern pace and tone, humid and molasses-slow in a way that’s admirable and exasperating in equal measure.
The epigraph, from the recently deceased Charles Portis, gives fair warning: “A lot of people leave Arkansas, and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.” In a more predictable noir, after Kyle and Swin are brought together under the supervision of Malkovich’s Ranger Bright, some foul-up or bloody misunderstanding would send the two low-level dealers on the run, probably carrying a bag of money, with Frog and his henchmen on their trail. The foul-up comes, but not the attempted escape, because instead of running, the two young men just sort of hang out, holing up in Bright’s campground and making ineffectual attempts to figure out what to do next. Swin courts a local nurse, played by Josh Brolin’s daughter Eden, and against her better judgment she ends up hanging out with them. Danger circles, Vaughn’s Frog looms, but nobody actually goes anywhere; in Arkansas, going on the lam is just a little too much effort.
Instead of young bravos on the lam, we get the flashback story of Frog’s rise, from pawnshop owner to casual dealer to middleman to kingpin of a somewhat ramshackle organization. This is the most interesting part of the movie, because Vaughn’s kingpin has a weight, a psychological presence that Hemsworth, the seeming lead, never manages to achieve. And even if his hard-boiled dialogue is only two-thirds as good as the script thinks it is, Vaughn still sells you on the twist that Arkansas builds oh so slowly toward: The ending is as unhappy as you’d expect from the initial setup, but it turns out that the tragic antihero isn’t who you think.
This article appears as “Southern Noir” in the June 1, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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