There’s a good movie trapped inside Clark Duke’s “Arkansas,” the writer/director’s frustrating debut that contains two distinct narratives, one compelling, the other ... not so much. A peek into the Southern states’ version of organized crime, the movie sports a first-rate cast, some fresh ideas and a very good performance from an unexpected source. However, as star, director, co-writer and chief bottle washer, Duke is far too close to the sections of the movie he’s involved with, and this proves to be a fatal blind spot.
Divided into five different chapters, parts one and three focus on Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke), two bottom-feeders in an Arkansas drug network. Their job is to distribute product and nothing else, until they’re given a job to transport a shipment across state lines. It doesn’t go well as they’re stopped by Bright (John Malkovich), a low-level kingpin who is posing as a park ranger as cover, and before you know it, these two stooges are working for him.
While all this is going on, the name “Frog” is mentioned in hushed tones as he is, apparently, the mastermind behind this whole operation. Chapters two and four of the film are devoted to him, and we see this unassuming man rise from being a pawnshop owner to one of the wealthiest, feared figures of the South. Clueless at first, Frog uses his wits to get ahead, always one step ahead of anyone who may be above him or may want to take him out. He goes about his business in a quiet, subtle manner, never calling attention to himself despite his outsized way of life.
As Frog, Vince Vaughn gives the best performance of his career. Never one to underplay a part, the actor has realized the power that comes from stillness on screen and how effective a quiet line delivery can be. The comic roles come easy to the actor, but when he’s required to go outside his comfort zone as he’s done in “The Cell,” “True Detective” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” he’s surprisingly effective, bringing a subtle power to his roles that are not simply menacing, but at times poignant. Seeing his work here, you can’t help but wish he’d stick to serious roles.
Unfortunately, Vaughn is only in half the movie, and the sections devoted to Kyle and Swin simply lack urgency or interest. Hemsworth and Duke hit their marks and know their lines but are incapable of bringing any nuance to their characters. Their scenes play out like narrative placeholders, and while dire things happen to them, there’s simply no emotional investment where Kyle and Swin are concerned.
The two storylines converge in the film’s fifth and final chapter, and despite Vaughn’s fine work, the conclusion lacks impact. Imagine trying to combine an episode of “Seinfeld” with one of “Three’s Company,” and you’ll get some idea of how mismatched the various parts of this movie are. The incongruities in style among the three principals, as well as the tonal differences that clash once they all come together, make for an odd viewing experience.
Whereas Vaughn’s work is polished, Hemsworth and Duke come off as awkward and at times amateurish. Had someone other than Duke directed the film, would the final product have been better? More than likely, as in the end, it becomes obvious that “Arkansas” would have benefited from a more consistent approach and critical eye.