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Clark Duke’s Directorial Debut “Arkansas” Clearly Shows Its Influences

A first film from an actor turned director is always an interesting thing to study. In particular, what kind of movie they choose to make their first time out. For Clark Duke, he really seems to have wanted to honor his cinematic influences, namely the Coen Brothers. Arkansas, his directorial debut, is the sort of crime tale, with occasional bursts of dark humor, that Joel Coen and Ethan Coen made a career out of, especially in their early days. Duke, however, ends up with a much more uneven effort than the Coen Brothers, even if it does display the sort of chops that will serve him well in the future.

The movie is a crime thriller, centered on two low level thugs who get caught up in a wave of violence. Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke) are the two gangsters, who are soon to begin living under the thumb of an Arkansas-based drug lord named Frog (Vince Vaughn), someone they’ve never actually met. Frog’s lieutenant Bright (John Malkovich) sets them up with a place to live, a day job as junior park rangers, and they begin work as low-level drug couriers during the night. Quickly, Swin settles into his own routine, helped out by beginning a relationship with Johnna (Eden Brolin), which goes against the orders from Bright and Frog to blend in and not carouse with the locals. While this is evolving, Kyle is determined to figure out who Frog really is, conflicted by his work, on some level. One inept decision leads to another, upending their little world, bringing about death, and putting their lives at risk. Soon, a confluence of events lands Kyle, Swin, and Johnna directly in the crosshairs of Frog, who thinks they’re a threat to his empire. That couldn’t be less true, but for the drug kingpin, there’s no other choice to be made. Duke directs and co-writes the script with Andrew Boonkrong. Steven Meizler handles the cinematography, while the score comes from Devendra Banhart. Rounding out the cast are the likes of Vivica A. Fox, Brad William Henke, and Michael Kenneth Williams, among others.

Clark Duke knows how to direct, that much is quickly clear. There are clear action sequences here, something you might not have expected out of the actor. In front of the camera, he also turns in one of his better performances to date, while Eden Brolin has a bit of a breakthrough turn, as well. Liam Hemsworth is fine, though a bit bland, while John Malkovich is enjoying chewing the scenery. However, Vince Vaughn is likely best in show, as his low-key villain is surprisingly empathetic.

Arkansas definitely has a Coen Brothers feel to it, though it never reaches the heights of their work. Mostly, the characters never invest you in their story. Even when Duke mixes in chapters, jumps around in time, and changes character focus here and there, it all just feels mostly like an exercise. The cast are all solid, but the story itself is pretty boilerplate. No matter how good the actors and actresses here are, they can’t totally save that fact from being present. Then, there’s the ending, which is pretty unsatisfying. What little intrigue you have evaporates in a stylized, yet really flat, conclusion. Alas.

Now available, Arkansas is an interesting little film. It doesn’t quite become engrossing enough to recommend, but the solid cast, along with Duke’s directing, make it go down fairly easily. Still, it does leave you wanting more, and that’s a shame. Mostly, this suggests that Duke should keep writing and directing. It’s hard not to imagine that his next project, or maybe the one after that, will really be a home run. He’s got the goods, plain and simple. It’s just a matter of putting it all together. He’s not there yet, but this flick is a showcase for his work in progress skills…

Arkansas is now available, both On Demand, as well as on Blu-ray.

(Photos courtesy of Lionsgate)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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