Arkansas Review: A comforting Southern crime thriller with colorful characters
The feature directorial debut of actor Clark Duke, Arkansas, is an intriguing and fun crime thriller that delves into a unique kind of drug underworld.
The film follows Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), a drug dealer that works under an Arkansas-based kingpin named Frog (Vince Vaughn) that he’s never met. Through his strong, but silent work ethic and determination, he’s been promoted alongside Swin (Duke), a “smooth talker,” to work under a park ranger named Bright (John Malkovich) to continue trafficking drugs across state lines. However, after a deal goes wrong, Kyle and Swin find themselves in some serious trouble that could have some deadly consequences if Frog becomes aware of them.
Right off the bat, Duke makes it clear that Arkansas isn’t your typical drug deal gone wrong or mafia style story with how it establishes the mindset of this Southern drug underworld. It’s actually kind of fascinating how there’s no big-name family running everything or some big crime syndicate that spans time, but rather a group of scumbags trying to make a living through organized, or more often unorganized, crime. There’s very little planning, a lot of thinking in the moment that often could lead to mistakes, and this sort unspoken agreement about things that’s really interesting to watch unfold. Everything is almost so simple and easy that it’s kind of unbelievable, but Duke creates these strong sequences that really suck viewers into this world and give them a better understanding. The scenes of Kyle and Swin just casually making drug deals say so much about the lax nature of this drug underworld and are made even more interesting through the great performances from the entire cast.
Frankly, there’s a lot of credit that has to go to Duke and casting director Brandon Henry Rodriguez because this film is casted pretty perfectly. While I haven’t seen much of Hemsworth, he’s really strong here as a rough and tough drug dealer looking to gain respect and get the job done. He’s definitely proves himself to be a Southern bad-ass with some gruesome fight scenes and stellar backtalk that shows he’s not taking anyone’s shit. Duke actually proves himself to be a perfect foil to Hemsworth as he’s brings a more likable and friendly charm to their relationship. Swin’s lax nature and willingness to bend some of the rules that Bright enacts, like a dating a local girl named Johnna (Eden Brolin), is very refreshing at times and creates a sense of empathy for his sort of rebellious personality amongst the hard-headed masculinity that surrounds him.
Really though, the best times with Kyle and Swin is when they’re together as their building chemistry and a strong bond that eventually breaks Kyle’s cold demeanor. Their bickering after a deal has drastic consequences is hilarious and the different ways they approach things shows their unique motivations and goals in this business. What’s more surprising though was how much you become connected to these two and the growth they have as Kyle’s coldness is slowly melted and Swin kind of grows up as he gets closer with Kyle and Johnna. Honestly, the whole relationship between Swin and Johnna y the end, you really the effects of their friendship and kind of attach yourself to it as the weight of their mistakes catch up with them and it’s in big part to how great Hemsworth and Duke are here.
Vaughn also shines as the mysterious kingpin Frog and he delivers a performance that’s pretty unique for his career and plays up his character’s determination for power perfectly. The film does a great job fleshing out Frog’s rise to power and Vaughn makes it all the more enjoyable with him constantly making Frog engaging and intriguing. There’s definitely this mysteriousness to Frog that viewers will love and constantly be enamored with as you try to figure out what he knows of Kyle and Swin and what his next moves are going to be. Malkovich puts in a fun, yet familiar performance that viewers will definitely love. His charisma and sense of authority makes Bright a memorable part of this film and his performance, as well as pretty much everyone’s, is made great through Duke’s direction and the film’s dialogue.
The script written by Duke and Andrew Boonkrong is surprisingly strong and the dialogue contains a Southern charm that’s comical with an authoritative tone. Mix it with Duke’s direction and we have a very engaging and fun film. The dialogue between characters has a great pace and tone that brings out everyone’s inner paranoia and mistrust of one another. Duke really makes every conversation count and helps build characters through their interactions and makes the slower-paced film that Arkansas is much more engaging and interesting.
As for the story, there’re some great parts that viewers will connect to and moments of unsureness that will leave them at the edge of their seats, but overall, the execution is messy. Every ounce of mystery surrounding who Frog is within the first chapter of this story is completely blown in the second chapter when the film decides to tell his story for some reason. Frankly, this is a huge misstep in carrying on the momentum and direction of the story that unfolds in the first chapter and makes the moment where the connections come together feel weak because we already know who Frog is. There’re even moments, like the introduction to the Twins, that are forcefully added in just to make certain connections work and it constantly creates this disconnect to what’s happening because new pieces are always being added in. As a result, while the film has plenty of things to intrigue and engage viewers, like the dialogue and characters, it’s also contains plenty of things that make the story feel aimless and give too much room to get lost in what’s happening.
Regardless, the good heavily outweighs the bad with Duke’s big debut behind the camera as Arkansas’ charisma and charm make exploring a new side of the Southern drug underworld both fun and thrilling. Frankly, I’d love to see more of him in the future and there’s definitely something for everyone to love in the film’s lax nature and colorful characters.