Raising Arizona (1987)

Directed by the Coen Brothers


Raising Arizona is the Coen Brothers’ second film, after Blood Simple (1984), immediately establishing their ability and willingness to go from gripping drama to absurdist comedy.  This film is smothered in broad comedy, extreme personalities and oversimplifications, but underneath there is some heart.  The film treats its characters with affection, but it shows them in situations brought on by poor behavior.  It’s like a friend you’ve had for decades who calls you a dumbass but does so lovingly, “he’s our dumbass.”

I don’t know what the message is here or what the Coens are saying about society (if anything), but they’re the damn Coen Brothers, they must be saying something.  The film follows H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) a persistent convict whose criminal activities are hardly ambitious (robbing convenience stores), but he seems dedicated to the prison life which is more familiar to him than real life.  On one of his voyages through the prison system, he meets Ed (Holly Hunter) a young cop to whom he takes a quick liking.  A few years and a few more prison stops later, they get married.  H.I. tells us in voice over that they have a nice life, but that Ed wants a baby.  She finds out she can’t bear children, and their relationship begins to suffer for it.  H.I. already hates his low-paying job, and Ed quits the police force.

When they see a news story about Nathan Arizona’s family and his new quintuplets, they decide to steal one of the babies, reasoning that the Arizona’s have too many.  This is all told to us in the first 11 minutes of the film.

H.I. feels uneasy about stealing a baby (as you might), and he has a nightmare about a motorcycle-riding outlaw, saddled with guns and grenades, who’s out to get him.  You think this is at first a manifestation of his extreme guilt, but this character turns out to be real, adding to the mystical absurdity of the story.

It’s really the only magical part of the film, as if H.I. dreamed this man into reality, but so much of the film is ridiculous, and you ignore it because the tone of the film tells you that it will all be a little bit ridiculous.  People and things move quickly.  The night they steal the baby, H.I.’s convict friends escape from prison and show up at their door.  Then H.I.’s boss shows up with his wife, and he proposes a wife swap, which makes H.I. punch him and lose his job.

His convict pals have a bank robbery plan, but H.I. refuses to join them.  When they discover that their baby is really the stolen child of Nathan Arizona, they restraint H.I. and take the baby.  The final act of the film rapidly increases in pace.  H.I. and Ed confront the two convicts, then they fight the motorcycle-riding bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls (Randall Cobb) and get the baby back.  Finally, they return the baby and are effectively pardoned by Nathan Arizona who gives them some reassuring advice when they say they might get a divorce.

H.I. has a dream that night of a future in which he and Ed have grown old together, and they’re children and grandchildren come to visit.

A lot of things are smoothed over very quickly.  Anytime H.I. goes to prison, we simply cut to his parole hearing and out the door he goes.  His stays in prison are never seen as consequential but rather repeated comic missteps in his comically mischievous life.  It is made to seem like he has no choice in the matter, he’s predisposed to a life that gets him in such predicaments as being incarcerated.  Similarly, the two escaped criminals never risk facing capture.  They hide out and then decide to go back to prison, climbing in through the same hole from which they escaped (and apparently hasn’t been filled).

In someone else’s hands (like mine), these moments would feel cheap, glossed over and unearned.  It’s lazy screenwriting, except here’s it’s not.  And to be honest, I don’t really know why.  I know it fits because it felt like it fit.  When these moments happened I didn’t question them.  Sure, I knew this wasn’t ordinary behavior, but it still made sense within the film.  So what does it say?  And does it have anything to do with Blood Simple?

Well, I haven’t seen Blood Simple in over a decade, so I don’t remember too much of it.  But from what I do remember, it’s dark and dramatic, nothing like this film.  The Coen Brothers have made several incredibly dramatic films (though often not without comedy). This includes 2007’s No Country for Old Men and, as far as I remember (again, it’s been a while) 1990’s Miller’s Crossing.

Their other dramatic films, like A Serious Man and True Grit or Inside Llewyn Davis have doses of comedy.  In some ways, none of those films feel like dramas because of certain elements, characters, situations that remind you life is absurd. (Fargo is very dramatic but also very funny)

So their dramas often have comedy, but do their comedies have drama?  The Big Lebowski is the best example of a Coen Brothers comedy, and while there were heightened stakes in the film, from what I remember it never felt that dramatic.  I’m thinking of John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak insisting to The Dude that he knows how to get a severed finger if you really need a severed finger.

The only real drama in Raising Arizona, if any, is the threat of H.I. and Ed splitting up.  The idea of stealing a baby is so insane, that you always know they won’t get away with the child.  And yet, H.I.’s and Ed’s relationship, as I mentioned, is built up through the first 11 minutes with incredible ease.  Their marriage came so quickly and simply that their divorce never feels imminent or that substantial.

I think I’m getting further away from the point.  Why did this work?  It might be that the story moves so quickly that you have to decide early on if you’re ready to take the ride.  So much happens in the first few minutes, in which we see H.I.’s recurring prison stints, prison releases and subsequent prison stints, that more focus is put on the pattern of behavior than the character himself.

In dealing with more broad characters, like the ones in this film, the defining characteristics do seem to be the patterns of their behavior.  I think a pattern (which I understand I’ve overused in the last three sentences) is something that can be boiled down to one word or a simple phrase.  Ed is an aspiring mother, H.I. is a struggling ex-convict, his escaped criminal friends are convicts, his boss is a perverted drunk, etc.

They become defined by one thing, and to make that one thing clear, it keeps happening.  So Ed keeps demonstrating how much she aspires to be a mother (demanding that H.I. go back inside the Arizona house to get her that child), and H.I. keeps struggling with work and maintaining the ‘peace’ between his criminal friends and his wife, who do not get along.  It means that the escaped criminals are already planning their next heist, and it means that H.I.’s boss keeps drinking and showing how despicable he is (and maybe his role as a ‘family man’ is meant to make H.I. fearful of turning into him).

This is all a theory, and as I type it, I can feel my argument slipping.  But I do think there is something to the idea of broad characters repeatedly demonstrating the thing that defines them.  By contrast, think of a dramatic or more realistic, grounded film.  Generally you see multiple sides of your protagonist, to get a real picture of who this person is.

With H.I., yes we do listen to his narration and see his nightmares/dreams, helping us see further into his character, but these moments don’t add complexities to his character beyond ‘he’s a former convict who wants to do right by his wife.’  All you need is a character with a mission statement that comes into conflict with other characters with their own mission statements.

I watched a very informative video once that broke down how the Coen Brothers film a conversation.  The basic point is that many films will shoot over someone’s shoulder, cutting back and forth, and the Coen Brothers refuse to show the other person in the foreground.  Instead they shoot on wider lenses that allow them to show the same amount of that character as a longer lens, but allows them to be closer to the subject.  This offers a more flattened perspective, and it forces you to see the environment in which these characters live.  It’s about how they dress and where they’re standing as much as what they look like or what their expression says.

Example: This first clips if from (500) Days of Summer (2009)


We start with a familiar wide shot to show the necessary information: there are two people seated across from each other in a diner.  Based on just this scene (stripped of context and without sound, so purely visually) we see two people with an unclear connection.  We don’t know that they’re romantic or were once romantic.  Instead we see them sitting across from each other in a similar position, allowing them to blend into the environment.  Their muted, dark clothing matches the location, and everything feels stiff.  Okay, okay, this isn’t a breakdown of this film, but what I was getting at is that this is an important scene in which Tom realizes they’re definitely broken up, like you had something that has become frozen stuck and is now thrown on the floor and shattered.

The point I did want to make was the shot-reverse shot set up.  We see Tom from over Summer’s shoulder and vice versa, with the other person in the foreground.  The camera distance changes, as is common when emphasizing the power shift in a scene, but both people are always in each shot.

Compare that to this scene from Raising Arizona:

The characters occupy their own shots.  You have one side (Ed and H.I.) and the other (escaped criminals) standing in their own worlds.  The set design and costumes help influence the characters as much as the camera movements or expressions.  H.I. stands proudly next to his wife and son, and then he moves over to be with his friends, still struggling to shake his old ways.  He buddies up to them immediately, and Ed isn’t happy. In the shot with the three men, now, H.I. still stands out because he’s clothed in white while the other men are in prison uniforms, with greased hair and mud/shit stains all over.  Also, the background is close to in focus (if not in focus) so you can see what’s behind them.  In the first shot, the background was out of focus, forcing all the attention to the performer.

So Raising Arizona, if you elaborate on this style of shooting, focuses your attention on the situation, the behavior, the setting, the clothing, etc. as much as if not more than the performance.  Part of that might be because, though this is set in a real world place, the story feels out of this world.  World building isn’t just about having a grizzly voice explain how long the machines have enslaved humanity or how long the Hunger Games have been going on, but it’s also about setting up character, tone and the rules of the world.

This film establishes H.I.’s recurring mishaps, his familiarity with prison and with Ed and finally the slapstick, zany quality of the humor.  Things move with speed, and there’s little time to think.  At the center of it, though, is a guy who’s trying to change.

H.I. keeps getting arrested probably because he’s a bit of an idiot, but he knows Ed will always be there to take his mugshot, and he’s excited to see her.  He may be dumb, but he’s also a little romantic.  Even once out of prison and once married to Ed, he tries to rob a convenience store again, suggesting that he’s still struggling to shake this pattern of behavior.  But the way the film ends (with the couple returning the baby and looking like they’ll stay together), shows a man who has changed.  It’s unclear what’s driven H.I.’s past criminal behavior, but we do know that he is haunted by he nightmare of what proves to be Leonard Smalls, and at the end of the film is conscience is unburdened.

He has grown up, and that’s probably important considering the film deals with people who need to grow up.  I really don’t think there’s that much of a broader point to be made, so maybe I should resist making it.  It’s just a nice story, at the end of the day, about a guy growing up.  Well, wait, maybe the fact that the consequences are made to seem like not that big of a deal and the triumphs are similarly not that big of a deal (based on how easily they come), the Coen Brothers show how nothing is that big of a deal.  That could be the point.


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