Review by Sean Boelman
A darkly comedic neo-Western, Arkansas is not what one would expect to be the directorial debut of an actor and comedian best-known for appearing in The Office. Thanks to a great script and inspired directing from Clark Duke, this is a surprisingly enjoyable and thrilling throwback thriller.
The film tells the story of two low-level drug runners working under a shadowy kingpin, only for a deal to go wrong, causing their once comfortable lifestyle to get shaken up. Based on the novel of the same name by John Brandon, the movie may not reinvent the genre, but it does a good job of paying homage to the tropes.
There is a narrative structure to the film that is certainly very interesting. It’s set up in a series of chapters, spanning two different time periods. Because of this multi-faceted approach to the story, it is able to feel like a big and grand epic despite the fact that it takes place in small-town Arkansas and follows small-time players.
The character development is also a strength of the movie as the script is heavily reliant on world-building and buying into the dynamic that exists between the characters. While the central arcs of the film are admittedly rather safe and predictable, the portion of the movie that explores the other side of the business is arguably much more compelling.
Undoubtedly the best part of the film, though, is its massive and wonderful cast. Liam Hemsworth plays the lead of the movie with Duke as his sidekick, and both are very charming. However, the real stars of the show are the supporting cast, with memorable turns from John Malkovich, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Vivica A. Fox, plus a superb performance by Vince Vaughn, who is at his career best with a role that allows him to show his dramatic range.
And even though the film is predominantly a gritty crime drama, there is an element of dark humor to it. At first, this tone may be off-putting to viewers as they try to figure out whether or not what they are watching is supposed to be funny, but once Duke finds his rhythm, the absurdity of the situation becomes ripe with potential.
On a technical level, the movie is surprisingly accomplished, especially for a first-time director. There is a clear style to the film, paying homage to the great crime movies of the ‘70s while still feeling unmistakably fresh. The score by Devendra Banhart is also very successful in complementing this atmosphere.
Arkansas is a shockingly good neo-Western coming from an unexpected new voice in filmmaking. Even though it does take the script a second to find its footing, it is an entertaining ride with great visuals and strong performances to boot.
Arkansas hits VOD on May 5.