Friday, March 30, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: Raising Arizona Movie Review

The Coen brothers’ sophomore effort, Raising Arizona, was a far lighter follow-up to their dark noir tale Blood Simple. It’s a comedy in the style of Looney Tunes, with zany expressions, lots of screaming, and physical comedy. But then there are dark and sinister elements which make it a cartoon comedy for adults and maybe older kids. This is the first Coen brothers film I ever had any exposure to when it used to play on cable when I was a kid. I had no appreciation for the finer things at the time so I only took it at face value as an absurd comedy. Little did I know that eventually the filmmaking duo (Joel and Ethan co-write and direct, although in their earlier films Joel was the credited director and Ethan the producer) would become my absolute favorite filmmakers. And looking at Raising Arizona now, I can clearly see their usual themes and styles emerging. In fact they were still developing their own style at the time, but there are shots that they continually come back to and every one of their films contains at least one scene with “that Coen brothers feeling.”


The film opens, like so many of their others, with a voiceover narration. The voice we hear belongs to H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage’s first adult role) as he spins a yarn that lasts more than ten minutes and fills in all the necessary background information leading up to the simple baby kidnapping plot. The Coens pack so much into this prologue it could almost be a feature film of its own if drawn out more. By the time it finishes you’ve forgotten there hasn’t even been a title and credit sequence yet.

McDunnough, or “Hi” as he’s known, is a recidivist convenience store robber who marries Ed (short for Edwina), the corrections officer played by Holly Hunter (her first lead role and the one that helped launch her star) who processes him each time he enters state prison. Their sad tale involves an inability to conceive natural children and a rejection at the adoption agency owing to Hi’s criminal background. So they do what anyone in their situation would do – they kidnap one of the Arizona Quints. These five babies are more than Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), the owner of a successful chain of unpainted furniture stores, and his wife can handle, so Hi and Ed figure they can just take one.

Something I never picked up on until watching it this time is the way every major character behaves like a child and even cries like a baby at some point. The Coen brothers are famously cagey about their motivations and symbolic meaning in their films. The claim for Raising Arizona was that they just wanted to make a more commercial film after Blood Simple became a niche market cult favorite. There’s always something more at work beneath the surface of their films. Perhaps the child-like rendering was how the Coens viewed characters in broad comedy. Maybe they thought it was the best way to appeal to a mass audience. It could also be a commentary on the way most adults approach their lives and the sometimes brazen disregard for children in modern society.

Hi is a criminal who can’t get his life straight. The moment family life starts to creep in and push out the last semblance of what he viewed as his freedom, he reverts to robbery. Ed seems on the outside to be the most mature and put-together character in the film, but when she can’t conceive a child of her own, she throws in the towel on life and makes decision to take a baby from another family. This is an act that could only be dreamed up by someone without a very sophisticated way of looking at the world, much like a child.

Hi and Ed are visited by the Snoats brothers, Gail and Evelle (John Goodman and William Forsythe, both of whom launched careers off this film), who have just escaped from prison where they once knew Hi on the inside. Their emergence from a muddy underground tunnel into the pouring rain as if they’re being reborn. At the end when they return to the tunnel in Hi’s dream, he tells us they weren’t ready to come out into the world. Gail and Evelle are basically two overgrown babies themselves with cherubic faces to match. Similar to both Hi and Ed, they lack any kind of complex understanding of life.

Then there’s the film’s villain played by Randall “Tex” Cobb, a demon from hell come to earth straight of Hi’s premonition. Covered in filth, decked out in leather and chains, carrying weapons of all sorts and riding a motorcycle, he is also a man stuck in an infantile state. He sports a tattoo that proclaims, “Mama didn’t love me,” and has a preternatural disdain for small animals. His name, Leonard Smalls, is an ironic twist on Lennie from Of Mice and Men, whose obsession with puppies and bunnies gets him into trouble.

Is the movie funny? Yes, in a zany Looney Tunes kind of way. The big comic centerpiece is an extended chase through a neighborhood following Hi’s robbing of a quick stop market. The whole thing is completely absurd involving speeding pickup trucks, police squad cars, shotguns and pistols, and a pack of dogs trailing behind, all to Carter Burwell’s musical score consisting of a banjo and yodeler, the perfect accompaniment to this world of mobile home dwelling in the desert landscape of the American Southwest.

As distinctly “Coen brothers” as Raising Arizona is, there’s an emotional impact the film has that is not in keeping with their usual style. Joel and Ethan are unsentimental filmmakers, but there’s a genuine touch of resonance to the relationship between Hi and Ed, illuminated in a scene at the end in which Nathan Arizona encourages them to take another night to consider their decision to end their marriage. Following this, Hi has another dream (premonition perhaps?), this time an old couple being visited by grown children and grandchildren. The zinger of a line that closes the film and the dream sequence allows for the possibility that really Hi is just a dope with no ability to achieve real insight, or it could be that his dream is a touching close to the film. Each individual viewer will bring his own interpretation to this ending and that’s what is distinctly Coen about the film.

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