• 27 Jun - 03 Jul, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

Twice in Clark Duke's Southern crime pic Arkansas, an oddball character played by the director informs strangers that, however off-putting he may be, sooner or later everybody wants to be his friend. The same must be true in real life, since the actor has enlisted a surprising array of talent to assist as he makes his feature directing debut. Artists from Vivica A. Fox to Devendra Banhart help in supporting roles while Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn and John Malkovich take major parts, all adding flavour to what might have been an Elmore Leonard-like stew of eccentric criminal personalities. But despite some promising moments, the project never quite takes flight, partly thanks to mismatched performances that don't seem to agree on how quirky this pic intends to be.

That dissonance may originate partly in the film's two lead performances. Clark and Hemsworth play Swin and Kyle, two strangers who both work near the bottom of a large drug operation run by a shadowy figure called Frog. Kyle is an unambitious grunt who rarely seems fully engaged; when he finds his life threatened in the story's second half, Hemsworth's unblinking embodiment of fearlessness muffles everything around him. Swin, on the other hand, looks like an oddball who chose to amplify his awkwardness instead of conform: long, stringy hair and wispy moustache; garish clothes that don't flatter his pudgy frame; sunglasses attracting attention instead of deflecting it. Duke's performance is less flamboyant than his presentation, but any actor arriving on set would likely take one look at him in wardrobe and think, "Okay, I know where this is going."

Take Malkovich, who plays a middle-manager in the smuggling outfit. The actor doesn't approach the levels of scenery-munching weirdness he sometimes indulges in these days, but he's not about to blend into that scenery, either. His character, Bright, uses a park-ranger job as cover for his operation; he installs Swin and Kyle in staff jobs there, sending them to run shipments to Louisiana or Texas in between caretaker duties.

Carelessness on one of those missions attracts unwanted attention to Bright's park. Bright's two underlings must rise to the occasion, keeping the drug biz going despite having no idea who their superiors are or what they're expected to do. Despite their efforts, people keep dying, and it starts to seem likely the boys are in somebody's crosshairs.