Producers: Patrick Hibler, Jeff Rice, Clark Duke and Martin Sprock   Director: Clark Duke   Screenplay: Clark Duke and Andrew Boonkrong   Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Clark Duke, Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Michael Kenneth Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Eden Bolin, Chandler Duke, Juston Street, Chris Mollinax, Barry Primus, Brad William Henke and Jeff Chase   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade:  B-

A Deep South tale of drug-dealing from actor-turned-director Clark Duke, who also joined Andrew Boonkrong in adapting John Brandon’s 2009 novel as well as taking one of the lead roles, “Arkansas” tells two chronologically distinct stories separately before bringing them together in the last act.  Told in meandering style and punctuating a generally low-key rhythm with periodic bursts of violence, the film holds one’s attention but seems more a minor exercise than a major contribution to an increasingly hackneyed genre.

Liam Hemsworth plays Kyle, a handsome he-man type looking to work his way up the drug distribution network headed by a mysterious, perhaps purely legendary, big boss called Frog.  He gets his chance when he’s dispatched to join a scruffy fellow, Swin (Duke), in driving a truck loaded with product to a drop-off point in Louisiana.  Along the way they encounter a forest ranger named Patrick Bright (John Malkovich), who threatens to inspect their shipment.  Kyle draws on him, but Bright turns out to be part of Frog’s operation, and takes them to a campsite where they’ll serve as workers in between their drug deliveries, assigned by Frog through Bright and his immediate superior, a saucy woman known simply as Her (Vivica A. Fox). 

It’s on one of their jobs, to an old Greek man (Barry Primus), that disaster strikes.  Swin has gotten involved with a local gal named Johnna (Eden Bolin), and as he drives back to the campsite he’s so lost in thought about her that he neglects to keep watch on the road.  That allows the old man’s nephew Nick (Chandler Duke) to follow them.  He watches them deliver the payment to Bright, whom he captures and tortures trying to get the money back.  Kyle and Swin have to clean up the mess, when is only exacerbated when a guy named Barry (Juston Street) shows up looking for Bright.  They realize they’ve gotten in too deep, and seek to buy a gun for protection from a fellow who runs a pawnshop outside town.

While that story unspools, chapters are inserted tracing the rise of Frog (Vince Vaughn), who starts out running a junk store where he develops a sideline selling bootleg cassette tapes in the 1980s.  Eventually he moves up to drug dealing and links up with a boss named Almond (Mitchell Kenneth Williams), becoming his right-hand man and successor.  He hires an unlikely pair as his enforcers—twins Thomas and Tim (Brad William Henke and Jeff Chase)—dim bulb mechanics whom he comes to depend on and to whom he ultimately bequeaths the operation, retiring to a quieter life—for awhile.

These two tales are told in interlocking chapters until Frog’s reaches the present, where it intersects with that of Kyle, Swin and Johnna.  The fates of the various characters are revealed via inevitable confrontations that feature twists that aren’t nearly as surprising as they’re intended to be, but manage to resolve things pretty satisfactorily, though not for most of the characters, quite a few of whom wind up dead or disabled.

Once one gets accustomed to the back-and-forth structure of the picture, “Arkansas” moves efficiently enough, thanks to the work of editor Patrick J. Don Vito.  The other craft contributions—from production designer Scott Enge and cinematographer Steven Meizler—are adequate as well, and the music by Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson suits the action. 

Among the cast Malkovich and Vaughn, as might be expected, provide the most fun, but Hemsworth makes a stalwart hero. And the rest are okay, if hardly outstanding.  One might have expected Duke to make more of Swin that he does, but he’s curiously restrained, perhaps deferring to his co-stars.  If so, it was an unwise decision, since it saps many scenes of a degree of energy they could have used.

In fact, that’s the besetting weakness of “Arkansas,” The characters are interesting if sketchy, the cast good and the plot turns clever enough, but the overall effect is a mite flaccid and drab—a mixed bag you might nonetheless want to check out.