We don’t need another Tarantino; young directors should be encouraged to look elsewhere for a role model. Like it or loathe it, QT’s films are usually game-changers, and have idiosyncratic surface indicators that are easy to imitate; some archly worded inter-titles, vintage stars portraying a gallery of low-life criminals bouncing off each other to comic effect, sparking outbursts of violence; it’s a goldmine of clichés that precious few have the talent to mine in their own style.
Step forward Clark Duke, directing, co-writing and starring here; Duke is a familiar comic actor from Bad Moms, Hot Tub Time Machine and the underrated Sex Drive, and adapting John Brandon’s bestseller was clearly a big opportunity to grab control of his career by giving himself the juiciest of roles. Duke plays Swin Horn, a bespectacled loser who works in the Southern drug trade. He’s teamed with the handsome, violent but none-too-smart Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) to traffic some product, but their hapless attempt at concealment immediately pits them on the radar of a crooked Texas ranger (John Malkovich). The consignment under question is the property of Frog (Vince Vaughn), and Duke’s script skips back and forward in time to relate Frog’s rise to power and how his penchant for mentoring leads him into the orbit of the dim-witted duo.
Arkansas was scheduled for a South by Southwest opening in 2020, but the on-going virus put paid to that platform; a pity, because Duke’s debut is remarkably assured and has definite big-screen potential. Starting with a well-chosen quote from the late, great True Grit author Charles Portis, Arkansas is smart enough to present drug-dealing as a necessity for survival rather than a life-style choice; there is no ladder to crime, just a short-term, dangerous, expedient career that’s likely to go nowhere but the grave. So while Arkansas doesn’t attempt to generate too much forward momentum, the meandering, wandered tone is just right for the protagonists, whose existence might be described as hard-scrabble or even cannon-fodder.
Established stars like Malkovich bring their A-game, and Vaughn adds to his recent blue streak of mesmerising tough guys including Hacksaw Ridge, Riot in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete. Hemsworth also plays well against type as a short-fused dealer, and Duke’s comic turn has unexpected depth. The Flaming Lips also contribute some well-chosen songs as well as a physical cameo, singing George Jones ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’. That’s quite a mix for anyone to manage, but Duke manages to keep the show on track throughout, and never descends to pastiche or parody, finding his own voice as a director away from any other influences.
First films can be deceptive, but the skilled observation and stripped-down character-study of Arkansas puts Duke in very good company alongside the likes of Jim Mickle (Cold in July) and Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Room), chronicling with true grit the deadly small-time crime-waves that ebb and flow across the American South.