ARKANSAS: A Southern-Fried Epic

Storytelling is our most ancient art form. It speaks to our very human need to connect and be amazed. Consider the ancient Greek myths or your favorite fairytale or urban legend. The power of these stories is their ability to speak so directly to a generation or a place in a way that makes them everlasting. It’s really an amazing thing to think about.

Arkansas taps into this ancient and powerful form of storytelling, crafting an epic of the South that holds you spellbound. It’s a story that feels as if it could be told at any time. Anyone could relate to it but, for this Southern-born critic, it lands in an especially haunting way.

Arkansas marks the directorial debut of Clark Duke. The film was an official selection of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, where the film was set to enjoy its world premiere. Arkansas stars Clark DukeLiam HemsworthVince Vaughn, and John Malkovich.

ARKANSAS film review
source: Lionsgate

In Arkansas two young men, Kyle (Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke) find themselves as low-level drug dealers taking orders from a mysterious kingpin named Frog. Swin settles into his cover, falls in love, and begins to piece together some semblance of a normal life. Meanwhile, Kyle is bound and determined to learn the truth about who Frog really is. Through a tragic comedy of errors, Kyle and Swin’s mishaps take them out of obscurity and on Frog’s radar. What’s worse? Frog sees them as a threat.

Arkansas as Homage

One of the most delightful feelings, as a movie lover, is watching a film and being able to see how much the filmmaker also loves movies. In ArkansasClark Duke injects so many timeless filmmaking elements that it’s hard to tell if it’s an intentional homage or just the craftsmanship of a studied creator. Arkansas speaks the language of great, classic cinema.

ARKANSAS Film review
source: Lionsgate

In many ways, Arkansas resembles a Southern-fried epic. It’s a long and twisting story, spanning generations and divided into chapters. While viewing the film one is distantly reminded of stories like Homer‘s The Iliad and The Odyssey. A fresh young “hero” embarks on a new journey, growing under the strange circumstances he experiences, and emerging as a formidable challenger to power. The narrative structure of Arkansas is so quintessentially classic, but with modernity that brings it in line with other modern epics like The Godfather. The film is like the lovechild of a Western and a gangster movie. It’s a bizarre pairing, but it works so damn well for Arkansas.

The South as a Character

In his comments on the film, director Clark Duke spoke on Arkansas as the portrayal of “his” South. Arkansas is Duke‘s home state and it was important to him to portray the South in a way that looked beyond the banjo strumming stereotypes. In this endeavor, he was successful without a doubt.

The American South is something of a storied setting when looking at the history of cinema. From the silent film era to the present, the South has been this embodiment of time standing still. The South feels old, even in the contemporary, therefore the narratives of the South feel timeless. Clark Duke captures this aspect of the region, perfectly, through a certain lazy stillness that permeates the film. Things move slow, which makes the action feel all the more pronounced.

In many ways, the South is its own character within Arkansas. Its isolation and communities that are almost too small to hide in. Its generational struggles and a contained ecosystem populated with smoky bars playing the same old songs. Clark Duke utilizes every strange and fantastical element of the region to tell this expansive story. This makes Arkansas one of the finer examples of the South in film.

The Film That Moseys Along

Arkansas is made by the nuanced performances of Clark Duke, Vince Vaughn, and Liam Hemsworth. It’s a tricky balance to create these larger than life, almost mythological characters with a subtlety that makes them feel real. Arkansas evokes the bravado of a tall-tale within the confines of everyday mishaps and happenings. The entire cast, but especially the aforementioned trio, carries this off beautifully.

The film meanders a bit in its pacing. No… it moseys. Going back to that inherent “Southernness” of the film, the plot moves slowly. It creeps along like molasses. The action moves in the manner a person would on an oppressively hot and humid summer day. There’s a stickiness to how the plot advances that doesn’t feel lazy or poorly planned. It’s just an extension of the world.  This is how the South moves.

ARKANSAS film review
source: Lionsgate

Arkansas is beautifully constructed and represents its subject in every solitary element. An unusual film that will be marked for its strong ensemble cast. As refreshing as sweet tea in spring.

What film do you think best represents the region you live in? Let us know in the comments!

Arkansas will release on Apple, Amazon, and On Demand on May 1, 2020.

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