If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Joel and Ethan Coen ought to be two of the most flattered guys in show business.
It seems that every year brings at least one variation on the Coens’ crime-in-a-quirky-small-town style, and 2020 has brought two: “Blow the Man Down” and “Arkansas.”
It is telling, perhaps, that both of these newest additions to the genre hail from first-time filmmakers. Coming right out the gate, it can be a lot easier to mimic someone else’s style than to feel comfortable in your own. Making an homage to great filmmakers- and the Coens are undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with- can be a great way to gain confidence and find your way forward.
And as Coen mimics go, “Arkansas” director Clark Duke is well on his way to bigger and better projects, I think. He wears his influences on his sleeve- not just the Coens, but the films of Quentin Tarantino and the writings of Elmore Leonard- but has created a film that can proudly stand alongside the works of those luminaries. Duke doesn’t reinvent the genre that the Coens perfected, but he proves that there can still be life in it with the right cast and some great writing.
The plot is both labyrinthine in execution and remarkably simple to summarize on paper. Duke and Liam Hemsworth play a couple of low-level Dixie Mafia goons who quickly get entangled with some murders, petty crimes and stolen money that put them on the radar of vengeful crime boss Frog (Vince Vaughn).
The plot twists and turns with plenty of blood spilled and mistakes made along the way. Duke adapts from a John Brandon novel of the same name and borrows a lot of that book’s plot twists along with some of its hard-boiled, and often quite funny, dialogue.
That dialogue is well-delivered by a murderer’s row of character actors, starting with Duke himself. At this point, Duke is best known for his comedic roles in shows like “The Office” and films like “Hot Tub Time Machine,” and his character Swin has a lot of the comic energy you would expect from a typical Clark Duke character. Yet Duke also makes Swin winsomely sad – a man always on the margins of society constantly scheming to find his way inside.
Duke is well matched in his scenes with Eden Brolin (daughter of Josh and granddaughter of James) who makes for a sweet, funny romantic foil.
Like Duke, Vaughn has been known predominately for comedic roles in recent years- so much so that I had forgotten what an imposing dramatic presence he can be in the right material. He’s great in “Arkansas” – menacing, funny and more than a little scary. As he ages out of comedic leading man roles, I hope that Vaughn can keep landing more of this sort of character actor role.
John Malkovich and Michael K. Williams have a handful of scenes between them, but they knock it out of the park, as you may expect. It says something about the quality of Duke’s script (co-written with Andrew Boonkrong) that he was able to secure such a strong cast for his first feature.
Not everybody in the cast works though. Vivica A. Fox isn’t given much to do as a Dixie mafia middleman (or middlewoman, I guess). But the weakest link is Hemsworth, the film’s ostensible lead. Hemsworth remains an incredibly good-looking man, but the charisma just isn’t there. Compare him to Duke, who allegedly is playing second banana to the movie star, and you’ll see that there really is no comparison.
If anything, the script of “Arkansas” is a bit too ambitious in how it jumps between two plotlines- one chronicling the rise of Vaughn’s Frog in the 1980’s and the other involving the present-day exploits of Hemswoth and Duke. I thought the former dragged a bit and sucked up some of the momentum gathered in the present-day bits. There’s no reason that the backstory couldn’t have been wrapped into some expository dialogue in the film’s main plotline in order to keep things moving.
These are rather minor quibbles, honestly, and “Arkansas” (rated R for violence, language throughout, drug material and brief nudity) is pretty exemplary as Coen clones go, but I also wish that Duke’s own distinctive directorial voice had emerged more. He clearly has a connection to this story – he grew up in Arkansas and his grandfather was a tertiary Dixie Mafia character- but little of that distinct passion and personality emerges in “Arkansas”. Still, this is a promising debut, and it will be interesting to see where Duke goes next.
With “Arkansas,” Duke has proven that he can make a pretty great Coen brothers movie. I just hope he is given a chance to make a pretty great Clark Duke movie at some point.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.