What’s the story?
Arkansas is based on a novel by John Brandon. Maybe that’s the reason why the director, Clark Duke, chose to segment the movie into chapters, much like a Tarantino movie. The main plot of Arkansas follows drug dealers Kyle Ribb and Swin Horn, a couple of down-on-their-luck dealers that are tasked with smuggling drugs across the southern United States.
Things don’t go too smoothly for Kyle and Swin, and they soon get involved in the death of one of their bosses. The story is divided into two main plots, one taking place in the present and the other showing the life of Frog, the boss of Kyle and Swin’s smuggling operation.
What follows next is a story of Kyle and Swin’s further descent into a life of crime. The plot of Arkansas isn’t a happy one: no one’s safe, and being a protagonist doesn’t mean plot armor protects you. Additionally, the film makes sure to show you that criminals come from the unlikeliest places, and that their life’s decisions affect the lives of everyone around them.
Is it any good?
Arkansas is a good movie, but it’s also a movie that struggles with translating its source material. The decision to split the plot into two separate timelines might have helped the novel, but in the movie, it detracts from the overall tension of Kyle and Swin’s story.
We mentioned earlier that Arkansas is a neo-noir thriller, and that might be the best decision for this kind of film, but maybe it proved a little too tasking for its novel director, Clark Duke. Duke’s known for playing comedy roles, so choosing a thriller for his directorial debut might leave more than one scratching their heads.
Clark managed to find a little solace by inserting some tidbits of dark comedy here and there, but they sometimes come off as jarring and, once again, distracting from the tension. Arkansas shows a lack of focus that comes when a new director faces a film that might be too daunting a project to begin things with.
Thankfully, one of the movie’s strong points lies in its main characters, played by Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke. Hemsworth’s portrayal of a man trying to make a living is credible enough, and the Australian actor has already proven himself more than capable of starring in physically demanding action roles. Duke, on the other hand, gives a little “quirkiness” to the movie, showing that his dry humor’s intact from his The Office days.
If there’s a single great fault with Arkansas, that would be its timing. The movie simply came out in a moment when no one was looking for new movies to watch, even worse for dark thrillers like this one. People will undoubtedly compare the tone the movie was aiming for with Breaking Bad’s, but that might be a tad unfair.
The movie’s fascination with rural America is understandable: it works really well when paired up with neo-noir storylines. At times, Arkansas feels more like a neo-western, in the same vein as movies like No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. It’s a shame that it never fully taps into the potential that its setting allows for, and it opts instead for mediocre gallows humor or cheap, gratuitously violent shots.
Arkansas isn’t a movie for everyone: yes, it’s heavily flawed, but at its core is a good story about the horrors of drug trafficking. It never shies away too much from the morbid reality it represents, and it always reminds us that, in the criminal underworld, no one’s safe.
If you liked Breaking Bad, or simply have a soft spot for gritty tales of survival in the US southern border, then Arkansas is a movie you’ll most definitely enjoy.