The 400-Word Review: Arkansas
By Sean Collier
May 6, 2020
Trying to evaluate “Arkansas” feels like giving a gifted child a so-so report card.
The crime drama is the brainchild of Clark Duke, best known for acting in comedies such as TV’s “The Office” and the “Hot Tub Time Machine” films. His ambitions stretch further, however, and “Arkansas” is clearly meant to serve as his “Reservoir Dogs” — a singular announcement of his cinematic intentions.
Duke is the director, producer, co-writer and co-star of the film. We’ll discuss his suitability for each of those roles, but first, the subject matter: Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) is a stoic drug runner who traffics narcotics on southern backroads. After a promotion, he’s saddled with an overconfident partner (Duke) and assigned to work under an aging middle man (John Malkovich) who maintains cover as a park ranger.
All are distant employees of a mysterious kingpin named Frog (Vince Vaughn), who keeps all but his most trusted associates on a need-to-know basis. “Arkansas” swings back and forth (via on-screen chapters) between the problems faced by Kyle and Swin — who, as you might imagine, find themselves in over their heads in a hurry — and Frog’s origin story in the mid-’80s.
Back to Duke. His most clear success with “Arkansas” is the script, co-written with Andrew Boonkrong and based on a novel by John Brandon. The yarn presented here is an undeniably entertaining underworld fable buoyed by lively dialogue. The script works. It’s a little heavy-handed at times — but what freshman feature from a clear film fanatic isn’t?
Duke’s abilities as a director remain a question mark. “Arkansas” stays lively and visually rich, but his instincts are unrestrained; much of the film could’ve been tighter and quicker. The influence of Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock goes beyond homage and into clear flag waving.
The young filmmaker’s misstep was casting himself. He can act well enough, but he is poorly suited to the role; outlandish costume and character choices question whether “Arkansas” is to be taken seriously or not. Moreover, he has given himself an underwritten love interest (Eden Brolin) in what seems like nothing more than an excuse to cast himself opposite an attractive starlet.
Duke shows great promise as a writer and potential as a director, but serious problems as a one-man shop. As a film, “Arkansas” is okay; as Duke’s statement of intent, it’s indulgent. Unfortunately, it’s much more thesis than standalone picture.
My Rating: 5/10