The Coen Project Part 2: Raising Arizona

After seeing Blood Simple, you’d be likely to peg Joel and Ethan Coen simply as promising writer-directors of drama. Three years later (1987), you’d be proven very wrong. When the brothers set out to make their second film, their primary goal was to create something as different from their debut as possible. Since Blood Simple was dark and realistic, the obvious choice of direction was a comedy. Enter Raising Arizona. 

At least in the context of film and television, the American Southwest often feels like blank slate where anything can happen. Maybe it’s the literal blankness of the desert, maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the sparseness of population. Could you imagine Breaking Bad taking place in, say, Boston? New Mexico and Arizona are places where you can believe a high school teacher getting away with selling meth, or a young couple stealing a baby to cope with infertility. It’s the perfect place to stage a comedy about crazy people doing crazy things.

With a bigger but still modest budget of $5 million to work with, Joel and Ethan don’t waste a single frame: an eleven-minute voice-over sequence packs in an entire act of narrative before the opening credits even roll. We’re introduced to convenience store robber H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) who meets police officer Edwina (Holly Hunter) while having his mug shot taken. Over the course of several repeat offences, the pair fall for each other and marry after Hi gets out of jail and vows to keep on the straight and narrow. They decide that they should have a child, reasoning that “…every day we kept a child out of the world was a day he might later regret having missed.” Alas, Ed is infertile: “her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase,” laments Hi.

Devastated by their rejection from adoption agencies due to Hi’s delinquency, the unhappy couple hear an interesting news flash: local furniture mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife Florence (Lynne Kitei)  have welcomed quintuplets. Hi and Ed figure that since five is a lot of children, the parents would not “overly” miss one. They head out to get them a baby, and the insanity that follows never lets up.

In my last post I talked a little bit about cartoons, and how they’re typically driven by characters rather than situations. The live-action comedies that I enjoy the most take a similar approach, turning a handful oddballs loose in some environment and seeing how they bounce off of each other.  Raising Arizona does this in a more literally cartoony way than a typical comedy. Many of the characters play on cartoon archetypes: Hi is a human Wile E. Coyote, disheveled and running around the desert, a constant victim of his own ineptitude. John Goodman and William Forsythe play Hi’s pals Gale and Evelle, a pair of prison escapees who aren’t far off from trouble-making cartoon duos like Ren and Stimpy or Pinky and the Brain, although Goodman comes off more Foghorn Leghorn than anything else. Hell, the baby quints even have cartoon names: Harry, Barry, Larry, Garry, and Nathan Jr (he’s an awful damn good one).

In stark contrast to Blood Simple’s naturalistic dialog, the characters all have eccentric ways of speaking, a mix of hick talk with solemnly biblical proclamations. The juxtaposition of lower-class criminals speaking in such a heightened manner drives much of the film’s humor. In an interview the Coens said that the dialog sprang from a mix of regional dialect and what they imagined these people would be reading, namely the newspaper and the Bible. 

Although little Nathan Jr. is the MacGuffin that drives the action, Raising Arizona’s central conflict isn’t really about a baby, it’s about Hi’s struggle between what he believes to be his innate criminal nature and his desire to become stable and respectable, motivated by his love of Ed. Maybe the funniest way this inner battle plays out is the scene where he expounds upon how he’s a changed man while simultaneously shoving several firearms into his pants. He just can’t help himself. 

It might be worth talking about why Hi and his menacing biker antagonist Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo. I’m wary about delving into speculation about certain symbols within the Coen Brothers’ films, mostly because from what I’ve read they tend not to put as much specific meaning into them as their fans would like to believe. That said, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Smalls is a manifestation of Hi’s criminal side. A lot of people online suggest that Smalls is actually Hi’s father or brother, but that kind of enters the realm of fan theory.  I just love the fact that it’s Woody Woodpecker, because it’s an explicit cartoon reference in a deliberately cartoony movie.


Stray Observations:

  • The Coens had originally planned to film The Hudsucker Proxy next, but the budget it would’ve required was too large for their studio. If you look closely at the jumpsuits worn at Hi’s job, you can see a “Hudsucker Industries” label.
  • I love the emergence of the Coen’s tendency to repeat a certain phrase or word over and over, like “sombitch” and Nathan Arizona’s incessant use of “butt”.
  • Is it just me, or is Gale and Evelle’s emergence from the mud outside of the prison eerily similar the spawning of the Uruk-hai in Lord of the Rings ?
  • Favorite moment: Ed feeling the need to blare her police siren while rushing to inform Hi that she’s “barren”.

Author: hackingcinema

Real engineer. Fake film critic.

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