The name might not ring an immediate bell, but the face will. Clark Duke is “that guy” from Hot Tub Time Machine and the American version of The Office, among others, but for his first film as a director he’s chosen something decidedly darker, one where his influences are plain for all to see.
At the centre of Arkansas are two drug dealers, the business-like Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), who works for a mysterious overlord going by the name of Frog, and the over-confident, talkative Swin (Duke) who is sent to work with him on a delivery. But they’re hi-jacked by a ranger, Bright (John Malkovich), who comes bearing orders for them to work with him – because he answers directly to Frog. Things become more complicated, with a deal going badly wrong and the pair trying to lie low, Swin unexpectedly finding himself in a relationship with nurse Johann (Eden Brolin) and the eventual discovery that Frog has been right under their noses all the time.
It’s a world where nobody is quite what they seem and where names are used to disguise, not identify, in a Runyonesque kinda way. It’s not the only nod in the direction of other writers and filmmakers in a neo-noir that’s essentially full of echoes. Digging graves at night under the glare of car headlights has a flavour of the Coen Brothers, the sardonic tone has a ring of Tarantino about it, while the non-linear structure and the low-level crooks who aren’t as smart as they imagine are all more than familiar. Not that Duke is the first to do this, nor will he be the last, but it stands in the way of him taking a step further and finding his own voice, so the result is a film that leaves you feeling detached and, as far as the narrative is concerned, more than a little confused.
The more engaging moments – especially the performances of Brolin, Malkovich and Vivica A Fox as “middle woman” Her, a semi-cameo that deserves more screen time – are thin on the ground, with too much time spent on Frog’s backstory. He’s another in Vince Vaughn’s recent line of nasties, but this time on one note and his twisty flashbacks add more to the film’s length than its narrative. The storyline as a whole is short on surprises, so what should be suspenseful and ironic is closer to flat with just a hint of deadpan.
The success of series in a similar vein on TV and streaming services – Ozark is one of the best examples – lurks in the back of your mind as you watch Arkansas. Divided into chapters, life as a mini-series seems a much better fit and would have allowed time for more character development and much-needed tension. As a film, however, it’s too stuck in the rut of being an homage and simply doesn’t have enough to make it stand on its own feet.
Thriller, Crime | Cert: 15 | Lionsgate | Digital, 13 July 2020 | Dir. Clark Duke | Liam Hemsworth, Clark Duke, Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Eden Brolin, Vivica A Fox.