Take A Trip Through The Criminal Underworld Of ‘Arkansas’

by Ben Martin

Over the last decade or so, film distribution has become more versatile and unpredictable than ever before. Movies are provided to audiences through a myriad of platforms and services. So much so, that outside of the major Hollywood tent poles, a new release could premiere about anywhere these days. As a result, a film’s form of distribution is no longer a mark of its quality or lack thereof. Of course, movies released outside of the traditional theatrical environment has become the new norm in light of a global pandemic. Thus, a fun question to ask one’s self is, “Would this flick have played in theaters under standard circumstances?” The most recent release to raise this query is Arkansas.
This crime drama, set in the underworld of the Arkansas chapter of The Dixie Mafia, follows Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke), two veritable strangers-turned-partners-in-crime. As bottom rung drug dealers, the pair quickly find a mentor in a national park ranger named Ranger Bright (John Malkovich), who’s also in the drug trade. Bright informs his new portages that they all work for the same mysterious backwoods kingpin known as Frog (Vince Vaughn) and as long as they follow orders without question, all will go swimmingly. Alas, as tends to happen in such genre tales, Kyle and Swin soon find themselves in over their heads in the Arkansas swamp of a career pool they’ve chosen.

In many ways, Arkansas is merely a boilerplate neo-noir. So how does such standard fare attract a cast chalk-full of seasoned actors? No doubt, all the credit is due to Clark Duke. A comedic character actor who generally fills the geek roles; while his name might not ring a bell, you’ve surely seen him. Believe it or not, Duke’s career spans nearly 30 years. During that time, it seems Duke’s made plenty of connections with those who want to work with him, which is a good thing since Duke’s doing double duty as a director and actor with Arkansas.

Admittedly, when the movie in review began, I thought, “Here we go, another flick full of Southern stereotypes and exaggerated or bad accents.” Now, that may seem like a snap judgment, but allow me to explain. Firstly, I was born and live in North Carolina. So, for better or worse, I’m familiar the culture of much of the southern United States. Therefore, if a story is set in the region, it’s harder for me to be overly forgiving of laziness that relies on southern stereotypes. Secondly, the opening scene has Hemsworth’s character sucking down a PBR while his accent comes-and-goes. Clearly, I was in for a long ride.
While not in fact a long ride, the first act of Arkansas is a bit of a bumpy one. It’s during this portion that the movie wears its crime fiction influences on its Western shirt sleeve. There’s a little bit of Elmore Leonard and a helluva’ lot of Quentin Tarantino love going on. Particularly regarding the novelistic structure of the narrative. To be fair, though, Arkansas is based on a lesser-known novel by John Brandon. Thus, I’d imagine that the film’s story structure originated with its source material. 

It was in this movie’s second act where something of a subtle magic trick occurred. But, I’ll be darned if I wasn’t being pulled into and entertained by Arkansas! For the remainder of its runtime, the film in review became the equivalent of comfortably zoning-out on a Sunday afternoon. Or, in the case of our current time, a decidedly or unintentionally lazy day in quarantine. Yes, I was invested and wanted to know what was going to happen to these archetypal characters; most of whom are well-played by the actors portraying them.

Vaughn, in particular, shines in all his scenes in a rare villainous turn. Unlike the actor’s antagonistic part in True Detective: Season 2 (2015) a few years ago, Vaughn manages to bring some actual charisma and humanity to Frog. The weakest link in this cast is Hemsworth; an actor who, unlike his elder brother, does not possess an overabundance of screen presence and star power. Even still, Hemsworth is perfectly serviceable as Kyle the majority of the time. Expect for a couple of scenes which I felt he sleepwalks through.

Meanwhile, it’s Duke who brings comic relief and a little soul to Arkansas as an actor, thanks in part to Swin’s romantic relationship with Johnna (Edwin Brolin). Behind the camera, Duke also proves to be skillful in his directorial debut. As an Arkansas native, the director doesn’t miss the opportunity to apply his home state’s atmosphere and color palette to this picture — which, I believe, is the significant aspect that pulled me into the film following a rough start.

Arkansas is not a movie I would recommend to everyone. But, if, like myself, you’re a fan of crime fiction or Southern stories, this movie is probably right up your alley. As opposed to being demanding, Arkansas is this genre’s equivalent of a warm bath. It’s a movie that provides comfort in familiarity, and there’s nothing wrong with that in these trying times. And to answer the question posed up front, yes, I think Arkansas would have received a very limited theatrical release.

Arkansas is Available for Purchase or Rental on Streaming Services, Blu-Ray, & DVD!

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