The Coen Brothers’ filmography can be broadly split into two strands: the serious works such as Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), and comedic diversions like The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) and Burn After Reading (2008). While The Big Lebowski is probably the most well-known and perhaps best-loved Coen’s comedy, Raising Arizona was their first out-and-out comic film, establishing both the wacky characters and outrageous situations that typify their overtly funny films. However, there is an overlap of the serious and the humorous in the Coen’s comedic filmography, of which Raising Arizona is an early example.
The principal characters and premise of Raising Arizona is established in the first ten minutes with swift narrative efficiency. Repeat criminal offender H.I. (Nicolas Cage), a convenience store robber, meets police officer Ed (Holly Hunter) while she takes mug shots of him. Each time he reoffends, he gets his mug shots taken by Ed, and H.I. falls in love with Ed over time and eventually proposes to her. With H.I. abandoning his criminal career, the couple marry and settle in a trailer in the desert. Unfortunately, their blissful life is blighted by the fact that Ed cannot have children, and adoption is not an option due to H.I.’s criminal record. They then discover that local furniture store businessman Nathan Arizona, Sr. (Trey Wilson) is the proud father of five babies, dubbed the “Arizona Quints”. H.I. and Ed come to the conclusion that the Arizona parents could spare a child, and so a plan is hatched that results in H.I. taking one of the babies, Nathan Junior (T.J. Kuhn, Jr.). This misguided act sets off a chain of events that strains H.I. and Ed’s marriage, but is principally shown to be a test of H.I.’s character, with the film primarily shown from his perspective.
Raising Arizona is presented as a broad comedy and perhaps one reason for this is to render a potentially objectionable premise – couple steals baby – more palatable for an audience. H.I. and Ed may be misguided in their actions, but their motives can be understood. They are well-meaning folk who want to do the right thing but who have strayed from a path of decency out of desperation, and so they garner a degree of sympathy. There is never in doubt about who are the truly dangerous people in the film, signalled in comic book-like terms by the bad guys being caked in dirt, whether it is Gale (John Goodman) and Evelle (William Forsythe), two criminal acquaintances of H.I. who escape from prison in a rainstorm and emerge from the ground covered in mud, or the shotgun-blasting, baby-hunting biker Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), a lawless wanderer emerging through hellish flames with a pair of baby shoes attached to his belt that jingle like cowboy boot spurs.
These figuratively and literally dirty characters feel like they have sprung from the dark depths of the earth, seemingly summoned by H.I.’s sense of guilt, fear and confusion. Gale and Evelle are single, boorish macho men without any attachments who taunt H.I. about his apparent emasculation by Ed, while Smalls is a larger-than-life lone ranger who answers to no one and lacks any sense of morality (even Gale and Evelle are shown to care about Nathan Junior’s welfare). The lifestyles of Gale, Evelle and Smalls are like H.I’s repressed anxieties and desires made flesh, while Dot (Frances McDormand) and Glen (Sam McMurray), an obnoxious couple who seem to have raised the kids from hell, appear to signify H.I.’s fear of family life, displaying crude characteristics of the worst type of parents.
Helpless H.I. is thrust from one outlandish situation to another throughout, the wide-angle lenses warping the edges of the film frame and bending the fragile borders of H.I.’s topsy-turvy world. Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld’s roving camera features rapid-moving shots reminiscent of the original Evil Dead (1981), which is apt seeing as the director of that film, Sam Raimi, was an early Coen collaborator. Interestingly, the second, more comic Evil Dead movie was released in 1987, the same year as Raising Arizona, and Ash (Bruce Campbell), the hapless leading man of these Evil Dead films, is subjected to the sort of extreme physical punishments experienced by Cage’s H.I.
The cast of Raising Arizona throw themselves into the film with gusto, none more so than Cage, who goes from laid-back to intense, sometimes in the same scene. Cage looks like a cartoon character plagued by misfortune, the equivalent of Tom or Sylvester getting whacked by household implements in their pursuit of Jerry or Tweety, only H.I. is overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of nobler intentions as the film progresses. A sequence with H.I. robbing a convenience store is a masterclass of visual comedy, being intricately structured and perfectly timed, with the ludicrousness of the situation swiftly increasing as incident is piled upon incident. There is a pistol-packing store clerk, an angry Ed driving off to abandon H.I. and then coming back to get him, a speeding police car turning up at the store, a pack of neighbourhood dogs chasing H.I, and much more, all accompanied by the Banjo of Ben Freed and yodelling courtesy of John R. Crowder, and punctuated by the sounds of screaming bystanders and gunshot blasts that seem amplified to sound like cannons. This over-the-top chase eventually concludes with a sock to H.I’s jaw from Ed, followed by H.I. skilfully retrieving a pack of Huggies from the road.
As exaggerated as the film is, it nevertheless has a moral centre, like much of the Coen’s output, concerning essentially decent people being buffeted by circumstances beyond their control, and trying to keep their head above water, make sense of the chaos around them and ultimately do the right thing. While The Big Lebowski is the Coen comedy that has spawned a cult following and seems to be endlessly quoted, Raising Arizona is, at the very least, that film’s equal in terms of memorable characters and comic moments. The big difference is that The Big Lebowski ambles along at a pace as chilled out as its spaced-out titular character, while Raising Arizona is a film with constant forward momentum and seemingly boundless energy, a Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes cartoon come to feature-length life. Raising Arizona is also an early example of what could be termed as the Coen Brothers’ ‘serious silliness’, a broad comedy with smarts and heart as well as laughs.1
Raising Arizona (1987 USA 94 mins)
Prod Co: Circle Films Scr, Prod, Dir: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen Phot: Barry Sonnenfeld Ed: Michael R. Miller Prod Des: Jane Musky Mus: Carter Burwell
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand, Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, T.J. Kuhn, Jr.
- For further details on the making of Raising Arizona, see: Jack Barth, “Praising ‘Arizona’,” Film Comment (March-April 1987, Volume 23, Number 2): pp. 18-24. ↩