Contemporary crime films are often compared to the defining antecedents to contemporary crime—critical hits from the 1990s like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction. Generally, these are sites of contention in which it becomes easy to tear down a new film by being too directly inspired by previous, successful films. There is something to these comparisons, given a film like Pulp Fiction, which helped ring in a golden age of independent films in the 1990s, directly influenced a number of films. But this form of criticism by comparison—I’m guilty of doing it often—can come across as limiting and exclusionary in an unproductive way.
With this in mind, I am in something of a bind. Arkansas, which is due to be released on VOD on May 5, feels like an attempt to hearken back toward these ’90s films. And to a fault. The film is comic actor Clark Duke’s feature directorial debut (he also co-stars and co-writes), and it follows a pair of newly anointed drug dealers (Duke and Liam Hemsworth). Through voiceover, we meet Kyle (Hemsworth), who almost immediately cues us in to his drug dealer status (“I’m a drug dealer”). The moody monologue introduces Kyle as a stoic, workmanlike peon within an Arkansas-based drug-running empire led by the elusive and anonymous “Frog.”
After abruptly receiving a “promotion,” Kyle is sent on the road with a partner, a foil personality in the form of Swin (Duke). Sleazy and crass, Swin is perhaps too near-sighted to truly understand what he has gotten himself into by moving up to the next rung in the organizational ladder. Kyle, on the other hand, is the cold and calculating type who has an almost innate handle on how to be a ruthless criminal. He admits to having no philosophy in life (which I guess makes him a nihilist by default), though he comes to care for Swin in a brotherly sort of way.
All the same, neither of these characters truly evolve beyond their on-the-road introductions to each other. They are given arcs, as is the figurehead behind the criminal enterprise, but the script does not build to these arcs’ conclusions in a satisfying way.
Part of this is due to an odd pacing issue. The film is simultaneously, paradoxically, too rapid and dragging. It takes a long time for the plot to come to life, and when it does it only does so in small flashes of energy. There is a lackadaisical quality to the film’s first two acts. This would seemingly be a means of ingratiating the audience to the film’s unseemly characters, and it does seem as though the script is trying to pull us into the orbit of these characters’ morbid mirth. Swin, for example, is introduced as a comic relief character who is also a creep, a combination which inexplicably wins over his love interest, Johnna (Eden Brolin). As she gets wrapped up in his charm, we are meant to, as well. Perhaps by the end we do, to some extent, but not so much so that it warrants the amount of plotless time we spend with him, Kyle, and their superior (John Malkovich).
To be clear, there is character to this movie. Duke, moving out of his comedy comfort zone, does add fairly consistent humor to what is otherwise a melodramatic crime film. But even if you are drawn to these characters’ personalities, the script takes a fairly boilerplate crime film and draws it out, spreading the two-hour long film’s plot thin. Once it reaches the final act, the script does provide some intriguing resolutions to character arcs, but these resolutions read less poignant after trudging through a meager plot and a belabored flashback structure.
This last act is where Arkansas gets to shine, even if that shine is dulled by what has come before. With the film’s three central characters firmly planting themselves in newfound roles, the question of their fates suddenly has stakes. And there is something to the (belated) realization of these character arcs, given that these characters are embroiled in a massive, and massively dangerous, miscommunication. There is a delicious irony to this, which leaves a bittersweet taste in one’s mouth when the film concludes.
But the lumpy narrative does this conclusion a disservice. In this sense, Duke’s adherence to the seminal influences which began this review is an impediment to his film’s success. The Tarantino-inflected narrative structure hampers the story by diverting to lengthy flashback “chapters.” There is also a general conventionality to the narrative. Despite following a well-worn generic path, however, there are kernels of novelty in Arkansas. Were the narrative more streamlined and the characters more firmly established, the film may be on the road to sleeper status in the crime film genre. As delivered, I am less optimistic.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)