ARKANSAS is the feature directorial debut from Clark Duke, who also co-wrote the film with Andrew Boonkrong, and is based on the novel by John Brandon. The film centers around two drug runners who find themselves in quite the pickle when a deal goes wrong. ARKANSAS stars Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games franchise), Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine franchise), Michael Kenneth Williams (12 Years a Slave), Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day), Eden Brolin (Yellowstone), Chandler Duke (Veronica Mars), with Academy Award nominee John Malkovich (The New Pope) and Vince Vaughn (Brawl in Cell Block 99).
To best describe the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: “Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke) live by the orders of an Arkansas-based drug kingpin named Frog (Vince Vaughn), whom they’ve never met. Posing as junior park rangers by day, they operate as low-level drug couriers by night under the watchful eye of Frog’s proxies (John Malkovich and Vivica A. Fox). Swin then settles into his day job by taking up a relationship with Johnna (Eden Brolin) against orders to blend in while Kyle continues to question his night job by trying to figure out who Frog really is. Their world is then upended after one too many inept decisions, and Kyle, Swin, and Johnna find themselves directly in Frog’s crosshairs, who mistakenly sees them as a threat to his empire.”
The best way I can describe this film is it’s a Southern-fried thriller by way of Fargo. Combining elements that feature smart writing by Duke and Boonkrong, along with biting humor, eccentric characters, and splashes of violence, this combination makes the runtime seem to fly by. Broken up into five chapters, the story’s narrative flips between present day and the 80’s so as to link the two intersecting stories together. Though most of the film has a slow-burn feel to it, the tension and the dangers at stake eventually ramp up. By that point, it’s hard not to be invested in the characters and the actions that they make.
For his feature film debut, Clark Duke knocked it out of the park. He did a superb job capturing a snapshot of the South both visually as well as in the presentation of the characters. Considering Duke is originally from Arkansas, it would make sense as to why the film, as a whole, felt genuine in its presentation. It adds a special authenticity to Duke’s approach as a filmmaker – he understands these characters and how to mold them into something more than just a caricature of what people expect Southerners to be. The cinematography by Steven Meizler really captures what life is like for many in the Southern states but luckily doesn’t fall on the overused trope of there being a yellow tinge to everything. Instead, the film has a color palette that gives the movie life, especially when we get pops of neon color.
What surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed our main characters, even with their flaws. Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke both gave terrific performances as two opposite personalities that meshed together perfectly. Hemsworth plays the tough-as-nails, overly serious and stoic Kyle, whereas Duke is the more flamboyant and energetic Swin. There seemed to be natural chemistry between the two which only helped to make their relationship seem more believable. The same can be said for Eden Brolin‘s portrayal of Johnna. The relationship that strikes up between Johnn and Swin is one that feels sweet and pure, even when the truth of what Kyle and Swin do comes to light. Vince Vaughn makes an appearance as Frog, the resident drug kingpin, with a quiet performance that speaks volumes. Additionally, his vibrant collection of shirts gave me all the life I needed. Though his performance is more low-key, don’t get it twisted, he’s still ruthless. The only character I wish had more screen time was that of Her, played by Vivica A. Fox. Though she’s only in the film for a few scenes, her performance as Frog’s middlewoman is long-lasting and hilarious.
Overall, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. It pulled me in from the first few frames and didn’t let me go until long after the credits rolled. I enjoyed that this crime thriller wasn’t suffocating or depressing, instead, it felt light and fun, even when the more serious moments unfolded. If you’re in the mood for a film that’ll make you laugh and take your mind off the state of the world, definitely give ARKANSAS a go. ARKANSAS is now available on Apple, Amazon, On Demand platforms, Blu-ray and DVD.