It’s ’80s Month on Filmophilia in September, where we try to sprinkle a few 1980s-related posts among our regular output of up-to-date reviews, news and articles.
It’s the age-old story. Man robs grocery store. Man goes to jail. Man gets out. Man robs grocery store again. Man goes to jail again. Man falls in love with booking officer. Man goes to jail again. Man proposes to booking officer. She quits her job, they get married and move into a trailer. C’est la vie in the world of the Coen Brothers’ sophomore outing, Raising Arizona.
In the film, the Coens build a heightened hyper reality, a live-action cartoon where anything is possible. Nicolas Cage, as H.I. McDonnough or simply Hi, is absolutely perfect for this world the Coens have created. He’s usually practically animated so he slides right into the role of Hi, with his perpetual bed-head, slack-jawed demeanour and seeming lack of intelligence. This being a weird otherworld, you’re completely unsurprised that during a farcical suburban foot case he remains stone-face calm as bullets wiz by his head. It seems so perfectly normal and at home in the Coens’ constructed reality.
When a leather-clad biker bounty hunter seems to all but leap from Hi’s dreams to hunt down the babysnatchers. He leaves a trail of fire, blows up furry animals and makes Batman-esque quick disappearances. Because of course he does and you don’t bat an eyelid at the fact.
Holly Hunter isn’t quite as out there as Cage but Ed is still a pretty crazed simpleton like her husband. She’s decisive in what she wants and, in a certain sense, is the driving force behind the film. Together, she and Hi have a goofy charm that distracts you from that fact that what they’re doing is really, really terrible.
The colorful cavalcade of side-characters is almost too dense to describe, with John Goodman and his bumbling brother William Forsythe being certain highlights. All the characters share at least one common element: They’re all head over heels for one of the most adorable cinematic babies ever. He’s really hard not to love so that’s probably the most grounded thing in the movie.
Raising Arizona is lathered in black, dark humour. Hell, the premise for the farce is that a woman is barren, leading to the kidnapping of a toddler. That’s super dark. There’s also an interesting dichotomy to the jokes in the film, with a contrasting of sight gags and off-screen gags. For every instance of someone yelling at another person for doing something stupid without actually showing said stupid thing, there’s an “I Drive Naked” sticker hanging around in the background. It keeps you on your toes, constantly alert to visuals that the Coens might actually decide to deprive you off. All this is then, of course, set to almost constant backwater banjo yodeling.
What makes the world of the film so convincing is the carefully constructed mise-en-scene, with a vivid color palette of bold choices in background wallpaper and general hue. It gives the entire piece a feeling of wholeness. It’s so complete and immerses you so thoroughly that by the time the late title card shows up following Hi’s initial voice-over you’ve been fully indoctrinated by the Coens.
It isn’t all just goofs and weird happenings though, as there are also layered themes at work here, such as cyclicality through the repeated futility of Hi’s grocery store robberies, along with other elements of his life such as his job, and an interesting through-line of nature versus nurture in upbringing. Why does Hi keep committing these crimes? Is it his upbringing or was he simply born that way?
Final Verdict: This is at once completely different yet oddly similar to Blood Simple, the Coens’ debut. Both show a very defined authorial voice, which is so focused and sure of what it wants. An immensely confident film, Raising Arizona is perhaps one of the finest black comedies ever made, and likely the finest of dark farces, save for Dr. Strangelove.