Flickchart Road Trip: Arkansas
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
Two things happened when I arrived in Arkansas: 1) I finally changed my direction from east to south, leaving Interstate 40 (which I’d been riding since New Mexico) to wend my way down to Louisiana on the comparatively tiny Highway 167, and 2) my clutch went out. Yep, I drive a stick. Yep, the moment I’m on a back road, I have car troubles. Murphy’s Law.
Now, at this point you may be asking yourself, “How does one have car troubles on a virtual road trip, and what does that say about the state where these imaginary car troubles are chosen to occur?” What did Arkansas ever do to deserve my car troubles?
All Arkansas did was to be the state I was “in” this past Tuesday, when my actual clutch went out on my actual car, in my actual real world. The less said about this, the better.
The good news is, I was only about 15 miles south of Little Rock when it happened, so getting towed back to the Volkswagen dealer in Little Rock wasn’t too expensive a tow. They did need to keep it overnight, but I found a nice place to stay and a great soul food restaurant. I had the fried catfish, and I especially liked their french-fried potaters. Everyone I met showed me a huge amount of the famous southern hospitality.
I got myself comfortable in my hotel room and watched Robert Milazzo‘s 2007 drama War Eagle, Arkansas (named after an actual town in the northwest corner of the state). Did I mention Arkansas was a difficult state for me? Not only had I seen few movies set there, but this movie was not yet in Flickchart’s database even, so I had to add it. No users have ranked it since then.
What it’s about
The story focuses on teenage best friends on the cusp of adulthood, passing time in a town they both want to escape. Enoch (Luke Grimes) is a star athlete, but can’t complete a sentence without stuttering severely. Samuel (Dan McCabe) has a laser-sharp wit, but is confined to his wheelchair by cerebral palsy, earning him the nickname “Wheels.” The two have been looking after one another for years, helping with the other’s limitations. Enoch is tempted by a career in professional baseball, especially since his coach (Brian Dennehy), also his grandfather, is a former minor league star who made certain sacrifices that brought him to War Eagle. He wants better for his grandson. Enoch is also tempted by the attentions of a pretty girl named Abby (Misty Traya), who threatens to drive a wedge between himself and Wheels. Wheels wants nothing but the best for his friend, having no problem with Enoch planning to put War Eagle in his rear view mirror. So it surprises him that Abby is becoming such an obstacle in their friendship. Mare Winningham and Mary Kay Place also appear as the boys’ mothers.
How it uses the state
War Eagle, Arkansas seems to have a truly conflicted view of the titular town, and by extension, the state on the whole. From the opening narration onward, War Eagle is described as a place everyone should want to leave. You wouldn’t know it was so terrible from Masanobu Takayanagi’s lovely cinematography, which makes this little hamlet seem at least very quaint, and possibly downright idyllic. The Ozarks are a constant backdrop, establishing our sense of place, and the wooden sign bearing the town’s name appears regularly, even figuring into the story’s climax. The contemplative bluegrass score deepens the mood.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Arkansas movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films War Eagle, Arkansas will battle:
1) Winter’s Bone (2010, Debra Granik). My Flickchart: #146/3423. Global: #1081. Jennifer Lawrence was basically unknown before Winter’s Bone. Now, she’s one of Hollywood’s hottest young properties, and she disappeared so completely into her role that viewers practically fell out of their chairs when they saw her in her Oscar dress. The role in question is the teenage guardian of two younger siblings, scratching by in rural Arkansas as she tries to find her deadbeat dad in time to save their house from repossession. What follows is a veritable Homer’s Odyssey through the Ozark Mountains, where even those who wish her well are nasty and venomous. There’s a reason this movie knocked everyone’s socks off.
2) The War Room (1993, Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker). My Flickchart: #1213/3423. Global: #6198. Bill Clinton has yet to appear as a major character in a fiction film, though Primary Colors served as a roman-a-clef of his run for the presidency. Neither is he a major character here, but the pride of Arkansas is the central focus of The War Room, which charts that same ascendancy in documentary format. The Clinton campaign seems to have been unusually accommodating to Hegedus, Pennebaker and their team, and as a result, this interesting and insightful film helped make George Stephanopoulos and James Carville (pictured above) into minor celebrities. Much of the action takes place at the campaign’s Little Rock headquarters.
3) Sling Blade (1996, Billy Bob Thornton). My Flickchart: #1218/3423. Global: #915. You know you were thinking it anyway, so I might as well just say it: “Mmm-hmm.” Much as Winter’s Bone launched Jennifer Lawrence, Sling Blade gave the world Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton, who proved a triple threat as the writer and director of this feature based on the short film he wrote (but didn’t direct) Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade. With his mental deficiencies and quotable catchphrases, Thornton’s Karl Childers became a bit like an indie Forrest Gump in our popular consciousness. Thornton the writer won an Oscar for his efforts. Rural Arkansas is the setting for this thoughtful character piece.
4) A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan). My Flickchart: #1656/3423. Global: #759. The phrase “as you’ve never seen him before” gets thrown around a lot, but it truly applies to Andy Griffith‘s performance in A Face in the Crowd. The future Matlock and all-around loveable guy made his film debut as a drunken drifter whose edges are so rough, you might call them jagged. After being found in an Arkansas prison by a roving reporter (Patricia Neal) who’s trying to give a voice to the disenfranchised, Griffith’s Larry Rhodes rises to instant radio stardom, rechristened Lonesome Rhodes, the Arkansas Traveler. Kazan’s cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame is effective, if taking an overly long time to deliver its broad message.
5) True Grit (2010, Ethan & Joel Coen). My Flickchart: #1766/3423. Global: #497. That sound you hear is readers’ heads exploding over me choosing the Coens’ well-liked remake as my last-place Arkansas movie. Well, that’s more an indication of the quality of Arkansas movies I’ve seen than anything else. Assuming she’s able to catch the scoundrel Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) wants him to be hanged in Arkansas, where he murdered her father. Despite another helping of Roger Deakins’ gorgeous camerawork and a charismatic performance by Jeff Bridges, True Grit strikes me as one of the Coens’ lesser efforts — which still places it almost in the top half of my chart. You’re entitled to your opinion, I’m entitled to mine.
First duel: War Eagle, Arkansas vs. Sling Blade. Some folks call it a mismatch. Sling Blade wins.
Second duel: War Eagle, Arkansas vs. A Face in the Crowd. The War Eagle characters talk about wanting to leave, but Lonesome Rhodes actually leaves. A Face in the Crowd wins.
Third duel: War Eagle, Arkansas vs. True Grit. In the battle of grizzled old men you wouldn’t want to cross, Jeff Bridges beats Brian Dennehy. True Grit wins.
War Eagle, Arkansas finishes sixth out of the six movies.
Pay no attention to the fact that War Eagle, Arkansas just became the first movie I’ve seen on this trip to lose all three duels. It’s actually a nice little film, if perhaps a little too little for its own good.
The problem ends up being that it’s so low-key that it barely contains anything in the form of conflict. Rather, there is conflict, but it’s not the life or death kind of stuff that generates its own sense of drama. So for that conflict to reach a narrative crescendo, it needs to be conflated to levels that don’t really seem appropriate in the context of the story. It’s a similar problem to how the film asks us to take for granted that this town is a stunted and dismal backwater, but only provides evidence of that contention in the form of a teen bully who goes about his bullying with a curious kind of detachment. He’s really the only “bad” person we meet.
That said, War Eagle, Arkansas has the kind of earnestness of purpose that’s hard to ignore. While this earnestness suffuses the movie, it’s perhaps most evident in the actors. Dan McCabe does not actually have cerebral palsy, but his portrayal is so convincing that I had to read several google search results before I decided that for sure. He contorts his body in the ways necessary to imitate the disorder without making it an offensive caricature, which is no easy trick. Stuttering is not quite so difficult an acting challenge, but Luke Grimes at least prevents his speech impediment from interrupting the rhythm of his scenes, as can often happen in films featuring stuttering characters. In fact, it’s the rhythms of this film in general that make it such a likeable if ultimately unremarkable indie. It’s a sturdy little drama examining friendship and family, in its own little corner of the world.
Now that this review is over, I can stop using the word “little.”
After putting my first documentary of the trip up for duel in Arkansas, I’ll be watching one as my centerpiece movie in Louisiana: Tia Lessin and Carl Deal‘s 2008 film Trouble the Water, which sees the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of an aspiring hip hop artist.
Also, what’s this? Mardis Gras is this Tuesday? New Orleans, here I come …