If the name Clark Duke isn’t immediately recognizable, chances are the face is; now in his mid-thirties, Duke has been acting since the early 2000s. Roles in Hot Tub Time Machine, “The Office,” Bad Moms and many more have earned him a status as something as a go-to goofball. With Arkansas, Duke makes his feature film directorial debut, adapting (with co-writer Andrew Boonkrong) John Brandon’s novel of the same name (though curiously, Brandon’s original work isn’t credited, at least not on IMDb). It’s the story of Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke), guys working as drug runners under the orders of someone named Frog (we learn, via backstory, that he’s Vince Vaughn, known only to the guys as a local pawn shop owner).
With their first shipment loaded in a truck full of sinks (the drugs hidden in the pipes), the two catch the attention of a park ranger who quickly catches on to what they’re up to, conscripting them into his service and making them adopt brand new lives as junior park rangers on his staff. Ranger Bright (a delightfully droll John Malkovich) gives them strict rules, including aliases and how to stay out of trouble—rules that Swin promptly breaks when he starts chatting up Johnna (Eden Brolin) in the produce aisle. The guys start living their double lives, junior park rangers by day and drug runners by night, meeting the local characters and learning the ropes of their new, illicit profession. There’s the woman known simply as Her (Vivica A. Fox), who calls Bright with orders and instructions.
When an order goes awry and their comfortable little arrangement gets upended , Kyle and Swin find themselves at the center of a drug outfit and essentially making it up as they go along in order to stay alive and, maybe, come out on top. But this is a game where everyone is in it for themselves, chief among them Frog, who learned how to stay at the top the hard way, by fighting for every inch of it. To try to recount the plot further than this would both spoil the film’s twists and turns and take up far too much space before ever getting to an actual review of the thing.
And sadly, that review is…not great. Duke is a talented actor, and certainly may yet be a talented filmmaker as well. But Arkansas feels far too much like a fanboy’s homage to the likes of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers to establish him as a filmmaker with any voice or perspective of his own. Certainly, any artist takes influence from those who’ve come before, and it’s only natural that those influences find their way into the work. The key, of course, is striking a balance between those influences and one’s own style in order to create something new and interesting. Instead, Duke’s debut is more of a knock-off than an original.
In front of the camera, he and Hemsworth (of The Hunger Games fame, not to be confused with his brothers, of The Avengers (Chris) and “Westworld” (Luke) fame) do their best to create characters we should care about. And Swin’s relationship with Johnna goes far to humanize the lot of them, but something about it also rings false, missing the context we need to understand why Johnna ever gives Swin the time of day to begin with. And the likes of Malkovich, Vaughn, Fox and even Michael Kenneth Williams (“The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire”) certainly make it a well-populated dark comedy; practically every few minutes of the film’s first act reveals a new, recognizable face in the ensemble cast. But somewhere, even they must know they’re serving up weak tea, the end product something that apires to greatness but doesn’t quite rise to the challenge.
Arkansas is now available on major VOD platforms.
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