Director Deep Dive: Raising Arizona

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

How do you follow-up your first successful work? It’s a question that plagues many artists. Do you continue with something similar or do you try to branch out and show your range? For the Coen brothers, the answer wasn’t just to branch out, but to plant a whole new tree. Never ones to pick a straightforward route, the brothers set out to make a film that stands in contrast to their gritty debut feature. A movie that not only showcases a new set of skills but proves that they can go big when necessary.

If Blood Simple is the Coens finding their style, then Raising Arizona is the discovery of their knack for offbeat characters and dialogue. It is a cartoon playing out in live-action with all the madcap energy that entails. The movie blends fantasy and reality together to such a point that the line between the two is nearly non-existent. It is lighthearted and fun, with a deceptively deep core.

Our story follows career criminal H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and his wife, police officer Edwina or “Ed” for short (Holly Hunter). The couple meet, fall in love, and marry in the extended prologue that serves as the film’s opening. They desperately want children, but Ed is infertile and Hi’s many prison stints make adoption impossible. Hearing news about the Arizona Quints, the quintuplet sons of unpainted furniture magnate Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), they hatch a plan to kidnap one of the kids and raise it as their own. Things only grow more complicated with the arrivals of Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), escaped convicts who Hi befriended in prison and a sinister biker (Randall “Tex” Cobbs) who is hunting for the child.

It is a tale no less complex than the Coen’s debut, although one less focused on intricate plot details. Raising Arizona is more concerned with getting you into the frazzled and desperate minds of its leads. Hi and Ed are driven by their desire to create a family, a need fueled by the time in which they live. That the movie so firmly gets you to side with their dopey scheme is a testament both to the writing and Cage and Hunter’s performances. Their actions may be suspect, but Hi and Ed’s intentions are pure. That is the key difference separating our protagonists from the crooks in future Coen brothers works.

This is also an uproariously funny film. Raising Arizona might be the Coens most pure comedy, with every scene set up for maximum comedic possibilities. The high point being a chaotic chase scene that involves diapers, dogs and a smidge of home invasion. It plays like a comedic version of Jenga, joke upon joke stacking on top of each other until it all comes tumbling down. There’s also a bank robbery that is so inept it has to be seen to be believed. If I could point to a single scene that formed the Coens love for bumbling, dimwitted criminals, this is it. Not to mention the dialogue, the characters all talk in an exaggerated southern drawl with a verbose and older sense of language. It further heightens the comedy and adds to the absurdity on screen.

Many of the same crew from Blood Simple returns, including cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. Sonnenfeld’s work here feels more in line with his future directorial output, with its kinetic energy and colorful landscapes. The world of Raising Arizona is as vibrant and cartoon-like as the characters themselves. The Coens also lean more into the Sam Raimi-esque touches. Most notably in a shot that tracks across the yard of the Arizona residence, up a ladder, and into the screaming mouth of Mrs. Arizona. They also find more inventive ways to frame shots, using wider angles to add to the over-the-top nature of the film and keeping the camera in a state of perpetual motion during scenes like the aforementioned chase. Curiously, the brothers pass on editing this movie. Instead, Michael R. Miller takes the reins, adding to the madcap wonder with cuts that hasten the already fast pace and even create their own punchlines.

With a bigger budget and acclaim on their side, the Coens draft a terrific cast of actors who all understand the eccentric spirit of the film. They even find bit roles for Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, the two standouts from Blood Simple. This is also their first collaboration with John Goodman and you can already feel the chemistry. Goodman revels in every punchline and screams his heart out. However, the movie ultimately belongs to Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. Cage does a fantastic job showing the increasing anxiety Hi’s situation puts him in and the pull between his love for Ed and the path of crime. Hunter balances this out with Ed, a character who could easily fall into the “put-upon wife” trope. Instead, she holds her own admirably by refusing to back down from her goals, even when her husband stands in the way.

Raising Arizona also provides our first example of the Coen’s use of dreams and magical realism. The monstrous biker, a “warthog from hell,” first appears in a dream Hi has the night of the kidnapping. When he later appears in the real world. We ask ourselves if Hi’s nightmare is actually a vision. That the biker, who goes by Leonard Smalls, has the same tattoo as Hi suggests he is some sort of manifestation of his demons, but the beauty is in the mystery of it all. If this “lone biker of the apocalypse” can come from Hi’s imagination into reality, why not the hopeful vision he has at the end?

Opening in the spring of 1987, Raising Arizona garnered a mixed response from critics. It is easy to see why that might be the case. If you look at the film solely on the surface level, it is a comedy that goes over-the-top at every potential opportunity and includes some scenes that are just plain weird. Under that comedy surface, however, is an introspective tale of a couple who desperately wants to fit in. Hi and Ed long for that elusive sham known as “The American Dream” and when the dream won’t come to them, they take it.

While critics were lukewarm on the movie, the Coen’s first major release picture had a healthy return at the box office. For many, this was their first exposure to the brothers’ style. It has since become regarded as one of their finest comedies, even appearing on AFI’s list of 100 funniest movies. The duo set out to prove they were equally adept at drama and comedy and succeeded. They would later blend the two in unexpected ways, but Raising Arizona remains one of their most optimistic works. A film filled with as much slapstick and hijinks as it is heart and sincerity.

Next Time: The Coens take on the gangster movie and their first period piece with Miller’s Crossing.

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