Arkansas review – two guys, a girl, and a consignment shop

April 27, 2020
M.N. Miller 0
Film, Film Reviews


Clarke Duke’s directorial debut is a southern crime saga that practically drips with a style all its own.



Clarke Duke’s directorial debut is a southern crime saga that practically drips with a style all its own.

It would be easy to dismiss Clark Duke’s directorial debut, Arkansas, as a throwaway video/digital on-demand thriller with bad acting and a nonsensical plot. For instance, Duke puts himself in a lead role with Hemsworth, Malkovich, Williams, and Vaughn, all while looking like he is the love child of Stephen Root and David Crosby. Sure, it has its flaws, but it’s a southern crime saga that practically drips with intrigue style and contains a Vince Vaughn performance that very well might be his best since brooding ’90s film Return to Paradise.

The film follows two fresh-faced drug runners, Kyle (Most Dangerous Game‘s Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke), who couldn’t be more opposite. Kyle is your traditional, do-it-yourself muscle and deals with problems head-on, while Swin offers the zany but cerebral antics in their partnership. They get paid by a man named Frog (Vince Vaughn), an Arkansas-based drug king. He uses a forest ranger named Bright (John Malkovich) as a middleman, smartly always insulating him from being fingered for the shady dealings of his business. To pass the time and keep things interesting, Swin meets a lovely young nurse, Johanna (Eden Brolin), who wonders why these two have nothing better to do with their time if they claim to be auditors for the state.

Arkansas is based on the novel by John Brandon (Citrus County) of the same name. Duke grew up in the tourist city of Glenwood, and the state is in an exciting setting for a film that no doubt has gotten more attention with Netflix’s Ozark that couple of years. It’s a landlocked region, and no other state has the country’s only diamond mine, natural wonders, and birding. Depending on the year and other conditions, it is also a state ravaged by methamphetamine and other drugs that have rates significantly higher than those in other parts of the nation. When you combine this, it’s a different picture Duke creates from traditional urban settings or states nestled on the southern border — yet the film was shot in neighboring Montgomery, Alabama, an acceptable stand-in for the material.

Arkansas 1

Duke’s film takes it slow, with a laid-back crime story approach that fits the themes and motto of a bored criminal is a good one. I think anyone giving a fair assessment will say that the film’s first half is uneven but then begins to even out by starting with the backstory that many can argue might have been the more interesting main focus of the film. The flashbacks involving Vaughn and an underused but still effective Michael Kenneth Williams start to take over the film’s second half and catch up with both storylines that meet at the end; oddly, this works here. Along with screenwriter Andrew Boonkrong, it does create a world of underground criminals all loosely connected by the mere fact of wanting to make money and all from various nationalities.

What pulls you through the muck of the first half is the deep bench Arkansas put together. Adding supporting solid work, John Malkovich is always welcomed; he keeps things colorful and exciting. Hemsworth doesn’t have to carry the film here, and they have the standard cliché relationship of the tall, handsome star with his funny, scruffy best friend who offers comic relief, which works well. Duke may have miscast himself, but I won’t accuse him of ego, directing a film I am sure was meant to save money on the overall production.

The main reason to see this film is how Vaughn’s character gets a broader look, and you completely forget it’s the man you’ve loved in Wedding Crashers, Old School, and Dodgeball. As the film flashes back to his days as a pawnshop owner who takes it upon himself to become the mysterious Frog, the tall, gangly comedic actor is almost gone, and the brooding actor morphs into the intelligent, ruthless Dixie’s drug kingpin. It’s a story I wish the film centered around, using Vaughn’s character throughout the film, folding in the flashbacks, with the newcomers more as supporting players.

I don’t want to make a different film, though; for its face value, Duke‘s debut is a southern crime saga that practically drips with a style all its own. This is the type of experience you will be rewarded with if you give itchance to make up for its mistakes instead of giving up on it too early — though that is a lot to ask of people these days. If anything, while having its flaws, this is Vaughn’s best performance in a couple of decades, and he reminds you what a fine dramatic actor he can be.

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