'Arkansas': Film Review

ARKANSAS Still 1 - Lionsgate Publicity_H 2020
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Underwhelming, despite a surprising abundance of talent.

Actor Clark Duke's directing debut throws Liam Hemsworth into a Dixie Mafia drug-running scenario.

Twice in Clark Duke's Southern crime pic Arkansas, an oddball character played by the director informs strangers that, however off-putting he may be, sooner or later everybody wants to be his friend. The same must be true in real life, since the actor (familiar from The Office and Hot Tub Time Machine) has enlisted a surprising array of talent (not only from Hollywood, but the music world) to assist as he makes his feature directing debut. Artists from Vivica A. Fox to Devendra Banhart help in supporting roles while Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn and John Malkovich take major parts, all adding flavor to what might have been an Elmore Leonard-like stew of eccentric criminal personalities. But despite some promising moments, the project never quite takes flight, partly thanks to mismatched performances that don't seem to agree on how quirky this pic intends to be.

That dissonance may originate partly in the film's two lead performances. Clark and Hemsworth play Swin and Kyle, two strangers who both work near the bottom of a large drug operation run by a shadowy figure called Frog. Kyle is an unambitious grunt who rarely seems fully engaged; when he finds his life threatened in the story's second half, Hemsworth's unblinking embodiment of fearlessness muffles everything around him. Swin, on the other hand, looks like an oddball who chose to amplify his awkwardness instead of conform: long, stringy hair and wispy moustache; garish clothes that don't flatter his pudgy frame; sunglasses attracting attention instead of deflecting it. Duke's performance is less flamboyant than his presentation, but any actor arriving on set would likely take one look at him in wardrobe and think, "Okay, I know where this is going."

Take Malkovich, who plays a middle-manager in the smuggling outfit. The actor doesn't approach the levels of scenery-munching weirdness he sometimes indulges in these days, but he's not about to blend into that scenery, either. His character, Bright, uses a park-ranger job as cover for his operation; he installs Swin and Kyle in staff jobs there, sending them to run shipments to Louisiana or Texas in between caretaker duties.

Carelessness on one of those missions attracts unwanted attention to Bright's park. (An assault on Bright offers one of the pic's more memorable moments: When a lowlife who's threatening his life suddenly jabs a coat hanger into Bright's eardrum, Malkovich wails "Ahh! Ahh! Yer not bluffin'!") Bright's two underlings must rise to the occasion, keeping the drug biz going despite having no idea who their superiors are or what they're expected to do. Despite their efforts, people keep dying, and it starts to seem likely the boys are in somebody's crosshairs.

Fairly early on, viewers are shown that Frog is actually a local junk merchant played by Vince Vaughn. Duke and co-writer Andrew Boonkrong offer a couple of long flashback chapters that, in Tarantino fashion, show how Frog rose from humble pawn-shopper to kingpin. Though not very likable here, Vaughn makes a slightly more compelling protagonist than our present-tense heroes, and his entanglements with other characters (principally one played by Michael Kenneth Williams) might have made for an enjoyable (albeit more ordinary) film on their own.

But Arkansas continues to trust in Swin and Kyle's charisma, so much so that it gives Swin a thoroughly implausible romance with a pretty nurse named Johnna (Eden Brolin, daughter of Josh Brolin and Alice Adair). The relationship's value as a stakes-raiser never outweighs the unbelievability factor, unfortunately, and it distracts the film from finding the suspense scattered amid all its quirks.

Production company: Storyboard Media
Distributor: Lionsgate (Available Tuesday on digital and VOD)
Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Clark Duke, Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Eden Brolin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Chandler Duke
Director: Clark Duke
Screenwriters: Andrew Boonkrong, Clark Duke
Producers: Clark Duke, Patrick Hibler, Jeff Rice, Martin Sprock
Director of photography: Steven Meizler
Production designer: Scott Enge
Costume designer: Ashley Heathcock
Editor: Patrick J. Don Vito
Composers: Devendra Banhart, Alexander Taylor
Casting director: Brandon Henry Rodriguez

Rated R, 116 minutes