There’s a line of thinking regarding pop culture today that says everything has been done before, that there are no original ideas left. In this school of thought, everything now is merely an interpretation or variation of what’s come before. There’s probably some truth to this notion (though there are films that come along every once in a while that are wholly original). Unfortunately, Clark Duke’s directorial debut and Coen Brothers pastiche, Arkansas, does not fall into this category. Though it boasts a talented cast and lively premise, Arkansas fails to tell its story in an interesting or flavorful way.
In his career thus far, Clark Duke has been a mostly unremarkable comedic actor, starring in both Hot Tub Time Machine movies and not much else of note. When looking at what he’s done, it’s bizarre that he was given the go-ahead for a passion project like this and managed to assemble a cast that includes John Malkovich, Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) and Vivica A Fox (Kill Bill) – all of whom are wasted. Arkansas has some comedic moments, but those often fall flat. It highlights the difference between homage and imitation, one that Duke doesn’t seem to fully grasp. In more capable hands, this film might have had something to say. As it stands, it unfortunately feels like a hollow exercise in black comedy and violence without a voice of its own, or any real personality at all. Arkansas tells the story of Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke), two lackeys working their way up the chain in a drug dealer’s organization in the South. When their first big deal goes horribly wrong, as things are prone to go, they must try and survive the fallout and continue to fail upwards while they also deal with the dealer himself, Frog (Vince Vaughn).
Let’s start with what does works. As a director, Duke clearly has a sense of style and vision that he’s working for. Musical cues (usually southern rock tracks full of big riffs that service the setting) roll on right when they’re needed, the camera tracks action with verve (with a delightful penchant for slow zooms), and there’s an oddball sensibility to the whole affair that fits the strange characters and plot. Vince Vaughn also chews scenery whenever he’s on screen, bringing a hammy Southern drawl and plenty of funky denim shirts to his violent affairs. It’s not his best performance, but it’s a damn fun one.
Sadly, the film’s strengths end there. The film’s main characters, Kyle and Swin, are given very little to do beyond embodying their two-dimensional personalities. Kyle is the stoic tough guy, while Swin is the chatterbox comedy relief. These stereotypes are even commented on early in the film, but Duke as a director (and an actor) doesn’t quite have the chops to effectively pull off this tongue-in-cheek commentary. The characters never grow or progress in any meaningful way, finishing the film in the same spot they began it in. They also lack the distinctive personalities to create memorable characterisations; they simply don’t do enough or stand out in the viewer’s mind.
That brings me to this film’s biggest issue: it doesn’t feel complete yet. There are the bones of a strong crime saga/black comedy here in the vein of the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino, but it doesn’t amount to much. Those directors succeed by fully embodying whatever genre they’re working in, while creating characters that feel both eccentric and believable. The Coens, in particular, convey an unmistakable sense of place, while Tarantino has a penchant for snappy dialogue that is often outlandish but always functions within the film’s world. Both succeed by tactically punctuating scenes with violence. In Arkansas, the dialogue, performances, and action all feel very hollow, like they happen just for the sake of happening. The film has the name of a midwestern state, but it could take place in any rural area.
Take for example the film’s second act, which examines how Frog came to lead his drug organisation. In it, we see Frog as the owner of a lawn shop, where he meets someone in the drug trade, who then leaves and bequeaths the “empire” to him. He also kills a bunch of people along the way. However, we don’t learn anything about Frog by the act’s end. It’s fun to watch Vince Vaughn stroll around in a bolo tie, but he never becomes a real character. It’s a problem that is not limited to him, but the film as a whole. Things don’t happen naturally, they happen because the script dictates it. That may sound ridiculous, but it basically means that the script never gets into a groove. It just moves from plot point to plot point with no connective tissue or purpose. There’s no coherence, and by the film reaches its final chapter, that incoherence results in tedium.
There’s something to be said for imitating great auteurs and trying to create something a little outside the box. However, most films cannot survive on quirkiness and snappy-but-cliched dialogue. And despite a fun Vince Vaughn performance and some entertaining stylistic flourishes, Arkansas fails to convey anything of substance or contribute anything original to the crime genre. I know it’s been awhile a since the latest Coen Brothers film of this ilk, but your time will likely be better served rewatching Fargo or Burn After Reading. When it comes down to it, those films are eccentric while remaining competent. It’s an important balance, but one that Arkansas never seems to get hold of.
Directed by: Clark Duke
Written by: Clark Duke, Andrew Boonkrong
Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, Clark Duke, John Malkovich