ARKANSAS. Clark Duke first registered on my radar in 2010, when Kick-Ass and Hot Tub Time Machine were released (both classics, incidentally). With his self-aware charm, wry delivery and beyond-adroit comic timing, he stood out in every scene. While he's worked consistently in the decade since, he's never had the breakout role I think he deserves. When I heard about Arkansas, which he co-wrote, directed and stars in, I tried to temper my enthusiasm. "Vanity" projects often carry the taint of sanctimony and self-reverence, but when they are motivated by passion, curiosity and dedication to craft, they have the potential for transcendence. (Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born turned out far better than I thought it might, after all.) And Duke's humility, his apparent connection to the material (he's an Arkansas boy himself) and his ability to bring together a formidable cast go a long way toward dispelling the notion that someone primarily known as a comic character actor has no business making a movie.
That said, the potential shown here doesn't really justify the end result; would that it were better.
With Andrew Boonkrong, Duke adapted this screenplay from John Brandon's first novel, which I have not read. I have, however, read his follow-up Citrus County and thought it suffered from surreptitious overworking, resulting in an illusory and self-conscious sort of looseness. And, as is often my chorus, I found it approached dark themes with an earnestness that belied hesitation. Not to belittle the work, it just wasn't for me. I can't speak to how much of the manuscript Duke and Boonkrong left on the page, but the narrative as it made it to the screen bears a number of the same witness marks.
Kyle (Liam Hemsworth), a rather simple-minded, heavy-fisted sort of a functionary in a pretty scruffy-looking cocaine operation, earns himself a promotion when he half-accidentally captures and detains a person of interest for his boss. Moved up to wholesale, Kyle is partnered with Swin (Duke), a half-smooth bullshitter with a distinctive sartorial style. They are assigned, by unseen boss Frog, to move a truckful of product across state lines. Their immediate ineptitude prompts the intervention of Bright (John Malkovich) on Frog's behalf. A park ranger, Bright brokered a partnership with the kingpin years before, using his park as a cover for distribution. He installs the boys as laborers, providing room and board and a convenient veil for their nocturnal movements.
Things go off the rails when Kyle and Swin offend the grandson of one of their wholesale customers, and lethal violence ensues. With no way to contact anyone within the organization by which they are ostensibly employed, they bury the bodies and decide to wait and see what happens. Inaction and ready access to cash prove too much for the pair, though, and soon Frog visits them with reprisals.
There's a whole Frog origin-story flashback shoehorned into the middle but it doesn't contribute to the plot in a significant way, except that it's a semi-surprise reveal of the character's identity.
The ambition here, to make a contribution to the canon of country noir (or whatever one would call it), is to me a noble one. The dimensionality of extra-urban America in contemporary storytelling remains pretty limited, and as a native thereof I can appreciate the urge to tell stories that might expand and subvert popular perception. I applaud Duke for seeking out a story that feels authentic-ish and also an appropriate fit for his dark, droll sensibilities. And he has managed to bring together a formidable ensemble, all of whom seem to enjoy the process of making the movie.
The problems, then, are technical ones, both in the construction of the narrative and in its final assembly. Where I see Brandon's fiction as overworked in service of simplicity, I think Duke's version would benefit from closer study and more time in the editing room. While he and Hemsworth do good work establishing the identities of their characters, for example, the performances seem to indicate a dearth of material to draw on. I don't mean to suggest we, the audience, need to know their back-stories, but it feels like the actors (or the characters themselves) don't know them either. For as much time as the movie spends establishing atmosphere and tone, essentially hanging out with the characters, it doesn't actually expand our knowledge or understanding of them. And perhaps most problematically for a story about murder, Arkansas doesn't understand how to visually depict physical acts of violence. There are occasions when showing by not showing can work (Kyle's revenge on the buyer who crossed him is a good example) but for the most part the scenes become a visual representation of indecision.
The result, while still to be applauded if only for existing, is a noir that, for leaning into atmosphere but shying away from the crucial examination of the violence at its heart, is too tentative to succeed. R. 117M. AMAZON.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.