Like a slow mosey through an Alabama backwater, Clark Duke’s directorial debut is a just-fine film with some colorful characters and some pretty views but not much else. (And, yes, it may be called Arkansas and be based on John Brandon’s 2009 novel of the same name, but the bulk of it was filmed just outside of Mobile, so…)
The tale of a pair of ambitious, low-level drug dealers has all the markings of something that would sprout from the keep-us-guessing minds of the Coen Brothers or maybe even an offshoot of a Martin McDonagh-helmed bit of nuttiness—but it’s unfortunately lacking the final layer of spit and polish.
Duke (who also co-wrote the screenplay and produced) and Liam Hemsworth lead the way as Swin and Kyle, a couple of nobodies who wind up paired together as they both accidentally start moving up the ranks of a Southern drug ring, which is headed by the enigmatic Frog (Vince Vaughn). The first step of their ascension is a stint with a man named Bright (a nutso John Malkovich), but it doesn’t take much time at all for things to start careening off the rails… at least as much as you can careen anywhere during a slow mosey through a backwater.
Deals go south, the body count rises, and as much as the duo want to make sense of it all and keep their careers on their upward ticks, they still have no idea who Frog even is, much less where to find him to get more merchandise. Eventually, they wind up going to see the even-more-enigmatic Her (Vivica A. Fox), who may or may not actually be Frog, or maybe his assistant, or, heck, someone completely different entirely. (The audience is let in on who’s who from the outset, but Swin and Kyle remain in the dark—adding one of the only interesting dynamics to the film.)
The odd thing is, there’s not much else that’ll keep you invested. Yes, Malkovich holds up his end of the bargain, and Eden Brolin (daughter of Josh) shines in what could be a breakout role if anyone sees this thing, but that’s pretty much all she wrote. Perhaps the biggest offender is Vaughn, who, despite being gifted half the movie in the form of a detailed look at the rise of Frog, never gives us much more than a few mutters and shrugs.
As for Duke, he doesn’t have anything else on the horizon (except for reprising his voice role in the upcoming sequel of The Croods), but he clearly shows glimpses of promise in the director’s chair. It’s unfulfilled here, though; Arkansas will eventually be looked back upon only as the forgotten movie where the guy cut his teeth on the way to (presumably) bigger and better things.