Comedy actor Clarke Duke heads to his home state of Arkansas for his directorial debut, a film which sees him behind and in front of the camera. Based on the novel of the same name by John Brandon, the crime plot follows amateurish drug runners Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clarke Duke) as they’re paired together on a job. When their deal goes horribly wrong, they find themselves on the run from kingpin Frog (Vince Vaughn) who wants to make them pay for their mistakes.
Despite its mobster premise, the story avoids the usual path for the genre and instead adopts a laidback, almost mumblecore style. With Kyle playing the strong, silent type and Swin as the ‘wacky one’, the indie script explores their unlikely burgeoning friendship through the well-worn buddy road movie narrative. Rather self-indulgently, director Duke gives his own character a flattering romantic subplot; a far-fetched and pretty dated tale of the schlubby rogue who sweeps the small-town Southern girl Johnna off her feet. However, in Swin’s case, it’s creepily through sheer persistence rather than any semblance of charm.
The central characters are unfortunately lacking in depth, but there’s fun to be had in the littering of enjoyable cameo roles and their ridiculous character names. We have John Malkovich as unhinged park ranger Bright and Michael Kenneth Williams as Almond, the drug lord predecessor to Frog. Both provide entertaining, albeit very brief turns, but its Vince Vaughn that stands out from the cast as the villain of the piece. Cool and menacing but whilst wearing a selection of loud cowboy shirts, Frog is a fantastic, intriguing creation that looks like he belongs in a Coen brothers take on True Detective. There’s a prolonged flashback partway through the film where we see how he moved up through the ranks to become the boss he is in the present day, and this sequence is way more interesting than the main plot-line.
Clarke Duke’s first foray into filmmaking has resulted in a slacker comedy which masquerades as a gangster flick. Moving at the pace of a Southern drawl, Arkansas is casually entertaining and worth a watch if only for Vince Vaughn’s compelling performance.