Arkansas: Is the 2020 Movie Inspired By a Real Story?

The neo-noir crime thriller ‘Arkansas’ follows petty low-level drug dealer Kyle Ribb and his partner Swin Horn, who work as part of an Arkansas criminal organization run by someone named Frog, whom they have never met. The two usually pose as quiet park rangers during the day before moonlighting as drug couriers at night, under the watchful eyes of Frog’s henchmen. While Swin tries to look at a life beyond that of a drug courier and finds a blooming romance with Johnna, Kyle finds himself increasingly drawn into knowing the true identity of the mysterious Frog. However, a series of blunders sees the two boys set on the course of a deadly face-off with him, where only one will survive.

With its concise and Tarantino-esque storytelling, Clark Duke’s debut directorial feature has earned praises from the audience, and many have lauded the casting, with prominent names like Liam Hemsworth, Vince Vaughn, Clark Duke, and Vivica A. Fox essaying some strong characters. While the story of Southern drug runners has managed to entertain the audience since its release, one can’t help but wonder whether the narrative of the thriller is rooted in a story that is true to or is a figment of one’s creativity.

Arkansas is Based on John Brandon’s Novel

No, ‘Arkansas’ is not based on a true story, but it is an adaptation of John Brandon’s debut novel of the same name. The screenplay has been developed for the screen by director Clark Duke and Andrew Boonkrong. The 2008 book is a dark comedy that is set in the rural southeast and talks of a pair of drug runners, Kyle and Swin, as they try to negotiate their way through the notorious Dixie Mafia’s criminal underbelly. The boys’ desire for an unconventional lifestyle, where they work for the arcane Frog, leads them on an adventure that lands them into situations they’d never have hoped for.

While the duo does go through moments of friction, they remain steadfast partners in crime. The film’s primary theme revolves around giving an anarchic look into Arkansas’ organized criminal underbelly and how two clueless small-time drug dealers find themselves getting sucked into it. While not based on a true story, the narrative is quite realistic, especially in situations where people might look to look at the glitz and glam of earning a few quick bucks, the illegal way. While the outcome of these actions isn’t felt at the onset, it is with time that the results of the actions unravel, leaving those closest having to face the brunt of it the most; similar to the fate of the characters in the film.

However, the film does have a silver lining to it, as Swin does eventually manage to walk out of the life of a criminal and start afresh. It also touches upon the possibility of redemption, no matter how dark the past might turn out to be. Even though the film is Clark’s directorial debut, he’s done a fine job in trying to show what he intended; the criminal underbelly of the southern state of Arkansas and the repercussions involved for those who find themselves getting sucked into that world, unwittingly. The idiosyncratic approach to the novel has been well-received by the audience, especially those looking to understand the world of criminal underworlds.

Talking about the film in an interview with Get Reel Movies, director Clark Duke stated, “Arkansas is about fathers and sons and fatherless sons and the cyclical nature of violence and the American dream and feeling disenfranchised from modern society… plus a little drug dealing. And a love story.” Interestingly, the narrative is also fused with a few bits from the personal life of the writer-director. He is an Arkansas native and grew up in Hot Springs. In conversation with Screenwriting Magazine, he mentioned that his grandfather was a “tertiary character in the Dixie Mafia.”

Duke added, “The FBI used the term ‘known associate. I had always wanted to write about my grandfather so the book answered that thematically for me.” When asked to shed light on the origin of the film, the filmmaker added, “I optioned the book, ARKANSAS by John Brandon, about ten years ago. Between acting gigs, it took me a few years to get the script where it needed to be. Then it took a few more years of trying to get people to read that script. Then trying to get people to finance it.” Duke spent a few more years convincing people to let him direct and find the right cast to breathe life into his labor of love.

While films revolving around drug kingpins and criminal syndicates aren’t very uncommon in Hollywood, with films such as ‘The Godfather‘, ‘Once Upon a Time in America,’ ‘Goodfellas‘ and ‘American Gangster’ being crowd favorites due to their cinematography, brilliant casting, and fascinating narratives, ‘Arkansas’ to does a good job in bringing the topic to the fore, albeit in a more light and slow pace. If you’re someone who enjoys watching films that revolve around crimes and criminals, then this underrated fictional narrative deserves a watch.

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