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. Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine, I'm Dying Up Here) co-wrote the screenplay (adapted from a novel by John Brandon), and Arkansas feels novelistic. It's divided into chapters, it has well-placed flashbacks, and it paints 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 people we actually care about. 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 appear. Even his relationship with Johnna comes to feel genuine. Hemsworth is, at first, a thug, but he starts to seem like a clever older brother (his interactions with Swin 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. Arkansas is a careful, casually paced underworld chess game that thoroughly entertains.