Originally set to debut at the South By Southwest film festival, Clark Duke’s feature film directorial debut “Arkansas” was forced to change course and now it drops on VOD this week. Duke (a Glenwood, Arkansas native) is probably best known for his roles in a string of irritating raunchy comedies. But “Arkansas” is a labor of love for the 34-year-old who not only directs and co-stars, but spent several years co-writing the script and even longer pitching his film and getting it financed.
“Arkansas” is based on John Brandon’s 2009 novel about two bottom-rung drug runners working for a mysterious country kingpin they’ve never met named Frog (played in the film by Vince Vaughn). Duke’s version plays like a Tarantino, Coen brothers, and Jeff Nichols collaboration. It isn’t as clean or as together as their films, but its messiness is part of its charm. And Duke’s home-grown perspective adds a layer of Deep South authenticity that is crucial to the movie’s success.
“What a lot of people don’t know about organized crime in the South is that it’s not that organized.” This early line of narration comes from Liam Hemsworth’s Kyle to describe what some have called the “Dixie Mafia”. In this rural underworld drug pushers use glorified gofers to move their powdery product between states. Kyle works near the bottom of Frog’s organization, but finally gets a promotion and is sent to Little Rock where he meets with fellow newbie Swin. The two are given their first job – driving a flatbed of Frog’s dope to Corpus Christi, Texas.
The pair make quite the odd couple. Kyle is a rugged, no-nonsense straight-shooter while Swin is an eccentric charmer wrapped in a Hawaiian shirt and a man bun. Before the two can make it out of Arkansas they’re intercepted by a park ranger named Bright (John Malkovich) who actually works for Frog. He informs the boys they are now a part of his crew and gives them covers as park peons – mowing, emptying trash, directing campers. But Bright warns them: follow his instructions, don’t try to run away, and most importantly keep low profiles.
Remember that early line about organized crime in the South, specifically the “it’s not that organized” part? Things get a little complicated after a local girl named Johnna (Eden Brolin) catches Swin’s eye. But things work into a full-on lather after the boys botch a seemingly simple drug/money exchange in Louisiana. Violence, some iffy choices, and one agitated drug lord sets up the movie’s central conflict and propels the story into some pretty unexpected directions.
Duke breaks his movie down into chapters although only one actually feels unique within the story structure. It’s a leap back in time to show Frog’s rise from a West Memphis pawn shop owner pushing bootleg cassette tapes to the boss of his own drug trafficking outfit. Along the way we see Frog learning the ropes from his mentor in the dope trade (Michael K. Williams) and eventually taking off to form his own crew. Of course the entire flashback chapter sets the table for Frog’s inevitable impact on the main storyline.
“Arkansas” is a film full of intriguing characters and great faces. Hemsworth is great giving what’s arguably the best performance of his career. Duke is the perfect foil, bringing levity and a surprising amount of heart. Brolin offers a sweet naïveté. Malkovich is a wily veteran actor who chews scenes in the best of ways. Vaughn is fun, imposing, and looks right at home in western shirts and bolo ties. And I haven’t even mentioned Vivica A. Fox playing the ambiguously named ‘Her’. All of the characters benefit from the hint of playfulness Duke and his co-writer Andrew Boonkrong bring to the script. But as the age-old phrase “violence begets violence” informs us, there is an unavoidable dark edge to this kind of story.
That balance between a Southern black comedy and a gritty crime thriller is one of the most impressive things about Clark Duke’s entertaining debut. Combine that with vibrant characters, great performances (especially from Hemsworth), and the rich flavor of its setting. Oddly, it’s both helped and hurt by its lack of polish and some of the dialogue is a little hard to chew. But it’s still a fantastic first feature effort￼ that both respects and has fun with rural America.
VERDICT – 4 STARS