Arkansas Review: Backwoods Crime Drama is a Quirky But Flat Imitation

Arkansas is a noir crime drama cut from the Tarantino and Coen brothers mold. Shady drug dealers with one word names doublecross each other in various backwoods settings. It is the feature directorial debut of Clark Duke, who also adapted the script and co-stars. Good performances from a veteran cast can’t overcome an obvious plot. Style trumps substance as simplistic supporting characters come and go illogically. A country and blues driven soundtrack from The Flaming Lips may be more memorable than the film.

Kyle Ribb (Liam Hemsworth) is a no-nonsense, street level pusher for a mysterious gangster called Frog. He’s paired up with Swin (Clark Duke), a loquacious charmer who’s out of his element as a tough guy. The men are recruited to work in Hot Springs, Arkansas under the guise of park rangers. They take their orders from Ranger Bright (John Malkovich), who lays down simple ground rules. The most important is to remain ghosts. Don’t get friendly with anyone, especially the local girls.

Kyle and Swin masquerade as rangers while doing drug runs all over the south. A fateful trip to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket leads to an unexpected encounter. Swin foolishly begins a romance with Johanna (Eden Brolin); which sets off a chain of murderous events. As Kyle and Swin become more entangled in Frog’s business. The crime lord’s rise to power is revealed in flashbacks.

Arkansas is told in chapters. Several of which take place in the past with Frog. So the audience knows Frog’s identity while the lead characters bumble about trying to figure it out. This aspect of the film felt like the classic Pulp Fiction, but nowhere as clever. Frog’s adherence to code names and secrecy is nonsensical here. Kyle and Swin only meet with a few people, so you wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to uncover Frog.

The only character with any depth or range of emotion is Frog. I’ll keep the actor in non-spoiler territory. John Malkovich’s turn as a head ranger and drug lieutenant is fleeting. So he has very little screen time and doesn’t do much. The remaining supporting cast could be cardboard cutouts. Eden Brolin’s only purpose is to be the fawning girl. Her reaction to Kyle and Swin’s criminal activities is unbelievable. There are also two villains that materialize in the third act. So they feel plucked out of nowhere and muddy the film’s climax.

Clark Duke has shot after shot of drugs being casually handed off. The methods range from clandestine to comical. Arkansas could be a primer on how to pass PCP in a public setting. That’s pretty much the extent of the drug business. All we see are the immediate transactions and nothing more. Arkansas glosses over details. So the film is superficial where it needs to be granular.

Arkansas struggled to hold my interest. Clark Duke and Liam Hemsworth have a modicum of chemistry, but their characters are too static. They are underdeveloped with little intrigue to the story. The only thing that resonates is the music. Arkansas is a production of StoryBoard Media and Media Finance Capital. So it is available now digitally and on Blu-ray/DVD from Lionsgate.

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