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With: Liam Hemsworth, Clark Duke, Michael Kenneth Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Eden Brolin, Chandler Duke, John Malkovich, Vince Vaughn, Brad William Henke, Patrick Muldoon, Jeff Chase, Jacob Zachar
Written by: Clark Duke, Andrew Boonkrong, based on a novel by John Brandon
Directed by: Clark Duke
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language throughout, drug material and brief nudity
Running Time: 117
Date: 05/01/2020

Arkansas (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Little Rock Candy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Clark Duke's feature directing debut has the same goofy confidence that his character Swin demonstrates, and the movie entertainingly balances humor, smarts, surprises and brutal violence with ease.

In Arkansas, Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) is a low-level drug dealer who works for a mysterious boss named "Frog," whose identity is unknown. One day when Kyle proves his loyalty, he's teamed with Swin (Clark Duke), and they are sent to work under park ranger Bright (John Malkovich), posing as maintenance men.

Though they are ordered not to get involved with women, Swin meets and falls for Johnna (Eden Brolin). Coming back from a deal, and distracted, Swin fails to notice that they're being followed, which results in Bright's death. The pair decide to cover it up and continue working. But soon, "Frog" (Vince Vaughn) begins to realize something's fishy.

Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine) co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from a novel by John Brandon, and Arkansas feels novelistic, divided into chapters, with well-placed flashbacks, and painting a vivid array of characters who quickly and efficiently reveal their personalities in just a few lines of dialogue. These include Michael Kenneth Williams as "Almond," a veteran drug dealer who works out of a fireworks shop, and Vivica A. Fox as "Her," a go-between who prefers to remain anonymous.

Perhaps the movie's best trick is to slowly develop these characters from criminal misfits into three-dimensional souls that we actually care about. Duke's Swin wears ridiculous clothes, an awful mustache, and long, straggly hair pinned up in a little bun, but he has a kindness and wisdom that eventually comes out. Even his relationship with Johnna begins to feel genuine.

Hemsworth is, at first, a thug, but he begins to like a clever older brother (their interactions have a certain comfort). Vaughn is a real surprise, however. Rather than being a paper-thin force of evil, he becomes a truly fascinating, tragic character. The band The Flaming Lips adds a finishing touch with excellent covers of classic country songs. Overall, Arkansas is a careful, casually-paced underworld chess game that thoroughly entertains.

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