Clark Duke (director)
1h 57mins (length)
13 July 2020 (released)
28 July 2020
Early on in director and actor Clark Duke's Arkansas, we're told organised crime runs differently in America's languid, humid South. There's none of the ruthless efficiency of the New York mafia, and instead a hotchpotch of ne'er-do-wells selling drugs to keep themselves in beer, grits, and flatbed trucks.
One of those is rootless drifter Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), a man with few interests beyond chugging beers on his own and lamenting his lot in life. After agreeing to make a drug deal for his superiors, he's paired with Swin (Duke), whose motor-mouthed positive outlook on the world provides a counterpoint to Kyle's misanthropy.
In the middle of a deal, they are pulled over by a corrupt park ranger named Bright (John Malkovich), who it turns out works for the same organisation as they do, selling drugs for a mysterious kingpin named Frog. Bright takes the pair on as his live-in assistants - setting strict rules on their fraternising with locals and deals with a glimpsed woman known simply as "Her" (Vivica A. Fox).
Swin's unruliness sees him break Bright's rules and enter into a relationship with a local girl named Johnna (Eden Brolin), and the duo's willingness to follow their own path has deadly consequences for those they associate with, and seemingly themselves - as they await the wrath of Frog. All these are interspersed with flashbacks to an early time in the 1980s in which Vince Vaughn plays a good old boy whose ownership of a Memphis pawn shop leads him into the same world of drug deals and violent crime.
At times, Arkansas, which is adapted from a 2008 novel by John Brandon, plods along but is all the better for it. Kyle and Swin's dubious wit and wisdom are allowed to percolate in-between moments of brutal and violent action that wouldn't look out of place in a Tarantino film. For a first-time filmmaker, Duke shows remarkable assurance in understanding the importance of setting a mood and giving us insights into his characters, rather than, as in so many crime capers, obsessing over set-pieces and his protagonists' street cred. In fact, both Swin and Kyle are believably uncool, with the former unable to believe his luck in snagging the kind-hearted Johnna, and Kyle strangely asexual considering he's being played by a Hemsworth hunk. As for the older, wiser characters, Malkovich masticates the scenery, as usual, and Vaughn proves he's much more interesting when taking on serious roles rather than playing a comedy doofus.
Arkansas is not without its flaws. It stretches on too long, and we could perhaps do without the chaptered structure that nods to its source material but sometimes breaks up the slow burn of the drama and atmosphere. Its noir B-movie style may also irritate some while being embraced by others. It is, however, something of an unexpected lockdown treat, as a relatively unheralded release that nevertheless proves more interesting than you'd expect from a new director taking on tricky source material.