In his debut feature, Clark Duke depicts his home state as a kind of purgatory. Spinning a yarn in a backwater locale via a non-linear timeline with some offbeat characters and a dark sense of humor, Arkansas is undeniably indebted to the brand of stylized, ironic crime thriller that had its heyday in the 1990s. But as derivative as the film might be, its strong cast and refreshingly subtle approach to narrative often elevate it above mere pastiche.
The plot centers around Kyle Ribb (Luke Hemsworth), a small-time drug dealer who gets a promotion and joins forces with another dealer, Swin Horn (Duke), to make a large delivery to Arkansas. They relocate to a state park which is being run as a drug front by ranger Pat Bright (John Malkovich) and are soon forced to take on more responsibility in order to deal with the consequences of a deal gone awry. In flashback, we see how their mysterious boss, Frog (Vince Vaughn), took a similarly unplanned route to his position of power. All in all, it’s a relatively generic narrative setup, though it’s one that’s enlivened by a string of sturdy performances, with Vaughn’s weary charisma carrying much of the film’s middle section.
Even as the plot developments keep piling up, the overall mood of Arkansas is one of inertia. Basic self-preservation and a resigned work ethic seem to be the only motivating factors here, as each character plays out a role they never seemed to want, in a game they know they ultimately will lose. The film’s disjointed temporal structure is an effective way to underline this idea of stasis, with parallels drawn between the stories of Ribb and Frog, though its use of distinct chapters and intertitles is an unnecessarily literary flourish. As Arkansas gradually settles into a languorous pace, nothing appears to exist outside of its own self-contained world, a western-tinged noir landscape that bears little relation to reality. While this self-aware tonality isn’t consistent enough to compensate for a notable lack of emotional depth, it does offer an interesting twist on an otherwise predictable tale.
Reflecting a line of Ribb’s that describes the criminal underworld of the so-called Dixie mafia as being one without a “philosophy of life,” the film is reluctant to strain for messages or meaning, beyond a sense of fatalism that it wears lightly. Every now and then, the dialogue hints at something revelatory, but most of the time it consists of nothing more than playful sparring between characters, or jokes that are too subtle to even fall flat. In one scene, Swin does embark on a rant about America’s nihilistic celebrity worship and cultural fantasies of the apocalypse, but this moment comes across more as a suggestion of his own antagonistic personality than as the kind of meta-textual musing that Tarantino might indulge in.
Duke’s visual aesthetic is one way that he occasionally escapes the specter of his influences. Though he’s not averse to needlessly flashy fast cuts, slow-mo, whip pans, and matching violence with musical cues, he also creates a convincingly dingy atmosphere throughout. Dimly lit scenes boasting tight angles effectively emphasize how restricted the characters are by their surroundings. And the Flaming Lips, who show up in one scene as a bar band, provide soporific covers of country songs that fit well with the film’s melancholy tenor.
Leaving aside a hackneyed third-act development, which provides some pathos that isn’t wholly earned, the film’s insistence on keeping the stakes low throughout is probably its key strength. However, while the film is rarely less than enjoyable, it’s hard not to eventually yearn for more conflict. In a similar way, its withholding of judgment for any of its characters is admirable, but the refusal to pick sides also prevents any real investment in any of them, causing a drift toward cynical detachment. Hedging his bets between committing to the crime genre and being critical of it, Duke is ultimately limited by the same aversion to risk that prevents his characters from breaking out of their own aimless cycles.