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