When actors make the transition from being in front of the camera to behind it in the director’s chair, the quality of their work can vary greatly depending on not just their talent in a new role on a film set.

First time directors may lean on key assistants or department heads to help shape their vision or these actors may want to direct themselves on screen, fully immersing themselves in multiple worlds simultaneously.

Clark Duke – a veteran comic actor known for smaller roles in ensemble films and guest spots on TV sitcoms – makes the leap with his feature directorial debut “Arkansas,” based on the 2009 novel of the same name by John Brandon.

On top of directing and producing “Arkansas,” Duke also co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Boonkrong and cast himself as Swin, one of two naïve drug dealers who serve as the film’s protagonists.

Cutting across much of the South but set primarily in the titular state, “Arkansas” follows Kyle and Swin as they attempt to climb the ranks of a drug trafficking ring led by a mysterious dealer known simply as Frog. After a job turns bad, Kyle and Swin are forced to keep up appearances while dealing with the fallout that could get them killed.

On paper, it’s a feature with elements of traditional crime, noir and black comedy that would appeal to a broad audience, but “Arkansas” is a middling independent movie that suffers most from its creator taking on far too much. 

The film’s significant identity crisis stems from Duke wanting to put every idea he had from a writing perspective into the screenplay, trying to emulate all his favorite directors and their contrasting styles and on top of all of that, reinvent himself as an actor by taking on a meaty, transformational part unlike anything he’s ever done before.

Technically, Duke achieves all of this with “Arkansas.”

His script is inventive, playing with the narrative structure both in time-jumping between decades and focusing on different characters by breaking up the film into chapters as master screenwriter Quentin Tarantino might do.

Duke’s direction is engaging, pushing a heavy hand visually at times with bold night cinematography that helps set the mood of “Arkansas;” although it’s not particularly surprising that the film’s best scenes directorially come when Duke’s Swin isn’t in them, which allows the filmmaker to focus on the whole scene and not confine himself to a single character.

As an on-screen performer, Duke swings for the fences with a nearly unrecognizable look, hiding behind glasses and a wiry mustache, dulling his accent slightly and evoking a strange combination of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Steve Buscemi for the film’s most interesting performance.

And yet, all the pieces that Duke assembles together to create the world he envisioned for 
“Arkansas” become a garbled noir mess with mixed tones that reflect his love for Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” one minute and the Coen brothers’ “No Country For Old Men” the next.

A strong ensemble cast led by John Malkovich’s signature eccentricity as a state park ranger and Vince Vaughn maintaining understated composure in a significant role as a pawn shop owner give “Arkansas” plenty of flavor that it richly needs, while Eden Brolin (daughter of Josh) is a welcome surprise as Swin’s love interest.

Characters in “Arkansas” are vague, but memorable enough to have a Tarantino-esque vibe that any one of them could have their own story or film made about them.

The rare exception here is Liam Hemsworth’s Kyle, who gives a solid effort opposite Duke but isn’t rough enough around the edges to play the sort of dirtbag that would pair well with Swin. It’s key to the success or failure of the film that Swin and Kyle feel like they’ve come from similar backgrounds to wind up at the same place, but Hemsworth isn’t matching Duke’s dedication to the part and falls flat relative to the rest of the cast.

“Arkansas” suffers greatly from missing out on a theatrical release, opting for a May 5 release on Bluray and streaming platforms after the film’s world premiere at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a movie that needs an actively engaged, rowdy audience to laugh and reinforce the film’s dark humor and it needs a confining theater to prevent viewers from checking out as Duke resets the film over and over again by switching decades and perspectives.

The best chance for “Arkansas” to find its audience and have viewers appreciate its uneven eccentricities is for people to wait until the film inevitably lands on a streaming service where viewers can take a free chance on Duke’s directorial debut.

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