A crime-thriller based on a best-selling novel that explores low-level organised crime and drug-dealing in the deep South with a cast as well stock as Arkansas should be the start of a promising film.
Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke), two dealers relatively low on the ladder of their organisation and recently promoted to wholesale, take up residence in a state park under the watchful eye of Bright (John Malkovich). Bright, their immediate manager, is just another cog in the vast and shadowy machine in which they operate, run by a figure known only as Frog (Vince Vaughn).
When things go quickly sideways, Kyle and Swin are left to clear up the mess and keep business running as smoothly as possible without anyone noticing— while also dealing with Swin’s (banned according to the organisation) romance with local nurse Johnna (Eden Brolin).
Constructed into a novel-like approach, director/writer/actor Clark Duke structures the narrative around a series of ‘chapters’ that switch between Kyle and Swin’s present and the history behind Frog’s rise from pawn shop owner to drug kingpin. While this does provide some backstory, it feels too disjointed to provide any interest —the primary characters are arguably Kyle and Swin but they are simply brushed past in favour of Frog. Delving deep into the mists of time, Frog’s initial relationship with Almond (Michael Kenneth Williams) could have the potential to build on the film’s synopsis of exploring “the cycle of violence… that turns old men into legends”, but in reality this section lasts little more than twenty minutes before Almond disappears from screen and is never mentioned again.
With such a stacked cast, it feels almost criminal to waste Williams and Malkovich in side roles that rely so heavily on the generic characteristics of “the mentor/mysterious boss” that they are never given room to breathe. There is a sense that perhaps Arkansas —based on John Brandon’s debut novel— would be better served as a limited TV series rather than a film. So much of the potential to explore the dichotomy between Kyle and Swin’s “cover” as park rangers and their true careers is wasted on montages between the action.
There is nothing overtly terrible about Arkansas but alternatively there is also nothing that elevates it above the ordinary either. The cast do their best but with thinly written characters, it is hard to care much about their rise or fall, despite the potentially interesting plot line.
Arkansas is out on VOD on July 13th and DVD in the UK on July 20th
by Rose Dymock