Raising Arizona

Released on April 17, 1987
Directed by Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld


(I’d warn against possible spoilers but come on, the film is 30 years old. Get it together.)

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but writing is a pain in the ass. “So why have a blog?” you may ask. Because as much of a hassle as the actual writing process is, having thoughts running through my head that refuse to leave until they’ve been somehow exorcised is far, far worse. So on occasion I write, if for no other reason than to be able to move on to the next thing.

Two weeks ago I announced my intention to view all 17 Coen Brothers films chronologically and do a write-up for each one. Self-assigning these types of little projects is something I am prone to do, in part because I know I get easily sidetracked and stating a goal publicly is often the only way I can motivate myself to see it through to the end, even if nobody else gives a shit. I watched both Blood Simple and Raising Arizona that very weekend, eventually pumping out a review of Blood Simple that I instantly didn’t care for, and have been sitting on my thoughts about Raising Arizona ever since. Like I said, writing is a pain in the ass. I think I’ve also had my enthusiasm for writing about it dampened by the fact that in prepping my post about Blood Simple I stumbled upon another blog doing the same thing and made the mistake reading *that* guy’s takes which I instantly liked better than mine. Suddenly the whole thing seemed pointless. But then again, sometimes so does life, so here goes.

Raising Arizona was one of those movies that appeared on cable on a daily basis back in the late 80’s when HBO and Showtime – before they had original content to bray about – would beat a movie into the ground to fill up their schedule. I have no idea how many times I would have seen it, in part or in full, but it was enough to know that it was a funny but ultimately “too weird for my tastes” kind of comedy. At 16 I wasn’t much of a film connoisseur and I most certainly wasn’t operating on the mental level needed to appreciate the quirkiness of the Coen Brothers. I say that now because watching it recently for the first time in almost 30 years and on the heels of viewing their first film, that is the one thing that immediately leaps out at me about Raising Arizona – that Coen Brothers quirkiness. Blood Simple was an excellent first film, but Raising Arizona is a much more significant statement of intent in terms of filmmaking style. So much of what they will become known for over the years can be seen taking flight in this second film.

We start with the character portrayals, as damn near everyone in this film is what I would call “offbeat” in some way. Nicholas Cage as H.I. McDunnough is a moron who speaks in the manner of a sophisticate while dressed like the white trashiest piece of stereotype to ever climb onto the silver screen. I can’t imagine anyone quite like him ever existing and yet that seems to be what makes Cage’s portrayal work. Ditto for Holly Hunter, who as his wife shifts emotions so sharply and absurdly that it actually makes their ridiculous situation seem plausible. John Goodman makes the first of his many Coen Brothers appearances alongside William Forsythe and the duo, while not completely off-the-wall, bring enough eccentricity to the proceedings to ensure that as a narrative story this will never be mistaken for a true life event. Trey Wilson as Nathan Arizona plays it about as straight as anybody in the film and even he is prone moments of peculiarity. This is important because this collection of whackjobs are laid down into a story that is just dumb enough to not be taken seriously, and without them it doesn’t work. It’s a formula that the Coen’s will employ in many of their future comedies (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and The Ladykillers spring to mind) where the stories themselves exist almost as backdrops to the characters that populate them. It’s a tactic that has served them well.

The idea that you can kidnap the baby of a (locally) famous person and not expect to have people make the connection when you suddenly show up with a newborn after having been told you’re both fertile and unfit to adopt is patently absurd. The fact that Holly Hunter’s Ed(wina) is also a cop just doubles down on the ridiculousness of the film’s premise. And yet in the world they inhabit it seems to be just reasonable enough to warrant investing in the journey. I’m not sure I’d tolerate the plot enough to see it through to its conclusion if not for the colorfulness of the people who are telling the story. A straight version of this tale would be idiotic and tiresome. This is the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen, who somehow manage to craft the ridiculous into something sublime. Theirs is a reality I don’t recognize, but one I don’t mind visiting on occasion and which I don’t need a spaceship to reach.

Unfortunately even in a world as off-kilter as the Arizona the Coen’s have conjured up there is only so much one can take, and ultimately I reached my breaking point with the involvement of Randall “Tex” Cobb as Leonard Smalls, Apocalyptic Baby Tracker. The conflicts between H.I. and Ed and the dual threat pairings of H.I.’s ex-prison buddies Gale and Evelle as well as his work foreman Glen and wife Dot are enough to keep things interesting, as well as providing two possible outcomes for the stolen baby storyline. Adding a Mad Max reject to the mix feels like complete overkill to me and breaks my already loose grasp of the reality the film creates. Its one villain too many and if the film has a flaw it is most definitely this.

Outside of the plot/character dynamics the movie is populated with a number of classic Coen Brothers features. The odd POV shots – such as the ones during H.I. and Gale’s wrestling match inside the trailer home – will become a recurring thing in the brother’s future work and shows their willingness to find humor in any manner they can. They find a physical comedy goldmine in the scene where H.I. first attempts to kidnap little baby Nathan Jr. and he finds that quintuplets are more than he bargained for (even if I can’t for the life of me figure out why he chose to remove any of them from their crib to begin with). Likewise the chase that ensues from H.I.’s ill-advised return to a life of crime in pursuit of some Huggies. The stylized approach to the whole sequence once again shows the Coen’s as young masters, mining an otherwise straightforward chase for laughs based entirely on presentation. It’s very clear from the get-go of their collective career that they are marching to the beat of a very different drum and we are all better off for it.

Speaking of drums, I would be remiss in at least not giving a tip of the cap to Carter Burwell’s excellent soundtrack. Whereas Blood Simple featured almost no musical accompaniment – to the point where the few cues used I initially mistook for sound effects – here the banjo work heightened both the stakes and the hilarity. It’s a vital part of the film.

My initial ranking of Raising Arizona had it at #12 of the Coen’s films, just behind Blood Simple and one up from A Serious Man, although the ranking came with the caveat that I hadn’t seen it since the late 80’s and it might be prone to change given a more recent viewing. Well I watched it twice in 48 hours in preparation for writing this and I can say it definitely improved in my estimation, although how that changes its ranking may not be as clear. I’d definitely put it above Blood Simple now, possibly even ahead of O Brother, but I can’t say for sure I’d put it over Inside Llewyn Davis or True Grit until I revisit each of those, having only seen each only once in the theater. But then I guess that was the point of this project anyway.

Rating: 6/10



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